Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Entry Fifteen:

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late. My apologies.]

In my final days I have continued to have interesting adventures around Jinhua. I was invited by the parents of some of my young students to go camping. To quote the invitation, “We’re going up the mountain to sleep on the mountain. We have the tents.” I knew the mountain and presumed the hike would be long so I packed plenty of water and food. Imagine my surprise when I found myself driving up the mountain, and eating dinner at a restaurant. We did sleep by a lake and in tents, but needless to say I felt pretty silly in my hiking shoes. China still finds ways to surprise me.

My next big night of entertainment was the “Special Teacher Class Graduation Performance.” Every year the Special Teacher Group does not need to take exams to enter the attached university, so they spend the end of the semester preparing a talent show. Typically over-the-top, smoke machines and spotlights filled the stage as the kids danced to “We Will Rock You.” It was fun to see my former students sing and dance, but in many ways it made me gloomy for having missed the graduation at Oxford Hills. There are a lot of great young people in the Class of 2008, and I wish I could have said goodbye.

Rather than have “step up day” for the incoming class, here in Jinhua there is a two-week program. The first week is an off-campus orientation, and the second week is a full week of classes at the high school. After being indirectly asked to take on some of these new classes, I abandoned some travel plans and accepted my new schedule. For one week I had a teaching schedule similar to my American work load with 3 classes almost everyday. The new students were full of enthusiasm, and I was much more confident in how to plan and prepare for them. The classes went really well, and I was surprised how willing they were to speak. Time has been flying by since.

A few days ago Max returned from Maine wearing his LL Bean t-shirt and telling me how “wicked good” people were to him at Oxford Hills. I expected no less.

Max really enjoyed his time with you back home and only had positive things to say about our community. He asked me to make a special thank you. In Max’s words, “The lunch ladies were so good to me, I really miss the lunch ladies. They would give me two hotdogs, and made rice special for me. Thank you, lunch ladies!”

Now that Max is back in Jinhua I can’t have a night without a big dinner and/or a trip to the KTV. They are trying to have me go out with a bang, that’s for sure. But, my most interesting trip of late was when Max took me to an isolated village about an hour out of town.

Due to its relative isolation, this town (forgive me, I don’t know the name) has seen little development in the last 30 years. There are buildings from the Ming and Qing Dynasty, many in desperate need of restoration – but at least they are still standing. People live in this village like they have for generations; many reside inside buildings with facades carved 300 years ago. Also, remnants from the Cultural Revolution are everywhere to be seen. The town’s loudspeaker is still in operation at the central square. “Long Live Chairman Mao” paintings are fading but not painted over. There is even a building where the Nationalists reportedly had an office before fleeing to Taiwan. In this office still hangs a portrait of Chiang Ke-Shek over a desk that the tour guide insisted is the real thing. In this one place I could see the history of modern China in its rawest form, decades of complex history layered on one another.

I have been to museums, I have read books, but to see it all together painted a vivid picture of the human experience in China over these last few centuries. I am in awe of the people of China.

I marvel at a society striving to find a balance between traditions and modernization. I marvel at a society trying to reconcile years of suffering at the hands of feudalism and colonialism. I marvel at their unconventional and costly journey of political, economic and social development. But mostly I marvel at these Chinese people who have endured so much – they are determined, hard working, sincere people with a clear understanding of what my grandfather would have called the “American Dream.” They look to the West with a defensive curiosity, and we have a tremendous opportunity to make a natural ally in a tumultuous world. But our next steps must be made with the utmost care or the opportunity will certainly pass.

Americans needn’t fear China, but we must begin to respect China for the power she possesses. This power, so worthy of our respect, is not China’s economic or military potential; it’s the strength of the Chinese people.

Walking in this isolated town with Max I saw all the history unfold before me. Chinese people have endured hardship beyond your wildest fears. With extraordinary resilience, and against tremendous historical odds, they have emerged. China rebuilt itself after a post-feudal-post-colonial dilemma, and they did so by their own power! In its historical context, China's current situation impresses me everyday - and I am humbled by the people I meet.

Chinese people are not hostile, but neither are they flaccid. What the people of China now want (for better and for worse) is to possess an economic lifestyle similar to our own. Who are we to object? In many ways we, the common people of both nations, share a common dream.

Walking with Max through the ancient village or down the developed streets of Jinhua's city center - the evidence of China's bright future is everywhere to be seen. Just look at what these people have overcome, look at what they have accomplished, meet them, know them, love them - and you will see in China the better parts of yourself.

See you soon,

The Viking in China

Monday, May 26, 2008

Entry Fourteen: Best of Times, Worst of Times

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late. My apologies.]

When I made it back to Jinhua from Shanghai I found my host family sitting in front of the TV with grave faces. Premier Wen Jinbao had traveled to the area hit by the earthquake and CCTV footage was pouring in showing the devastation. CCTV dedicated every station to 24 hour coverage of the relief effort as the army mobilized to rescue victims. The school already had fund raisers underway and there was a massive telethon aired on CCTV to raise money. The government responded with everything they have. People everywhere were donating money or supplies. It was really quite moving, not only because of the scale of the tragedy but the scale of the popular response.

In contrast to the somber mood in Jinhua, that weekend I went to Hangzhou to witness the enthusiasm of the Olympic Torch Relay. Ying Nina and Chan, my best friends in China, took me and a few others to Hangzhou. After a pleasant one hour on the D train playing cards, we arrived, waited for a taxi and headed to the hotel. From the hotel we visited a Mongolian Restaurant, and Hangzhou’s reputation for great food held up. Delicious! I did, however, try the first food in China that I cannot stand to eat: Smelly Tofu. Chan (and many others) love it, but to me it smells and tastes like the bottom of a city dumpster. That being said, I tried it three times – just to be sure.

That night we wandered about trying to find our way to the West Lake to buy some of the popular “I love China” garb. Patriotic clothing is the latest trend in a post-protest, post-earthquake, pre-Olympics nationalist fervor. While I have my reservations about some of the government’s decisions, I can say without blinking that I love China. So, I bought some items to reflect that.

My 200 plus pound frame slipped into a XXL “I LOVE CHINA” t-shirt, I wrapped a “Let’s Go China!” bandana around my head, and stuck Chinese Flags all over myself. Walking around the lake at night I was the subject to plenty of pointing, and few people asked to take pictures with me. It was nothing compared with the next day.

That evening we ate fruit and made posters in the hotel until midnight. After a quick sleep and a slow breakfast we left the hotel in taxis to get closer to the relay route. Every inch of the way people were selling “I love China” items, and at a premium price given the quality. We lined up along the fenced off road and waited, absorbing the noticeable energy and excitement. One old man had a great spot on a street corner, which he could have only earned if he had arrived at dawn to claim his position. As the crowd gathered around him his eyes just grew bigger and bigger. Consider what that 70 year old man has seen in his lifetime in China; my mind races to imagine how this day compared.

As the crowd grew larger and larger I became more and more of a spectacle. Strangers asked left and right to have a picture with me, and countless more stopped dead in their tracts to raise their cell phone cameras. My friends commented on what I had already realized, Chinese people were excited to see what they’d call a “friendly foreigner." I was happy to be able to support and celebrate with my Chinese friends.

After an hour of standing, the relay rolled by. The screams and enthusiasm lived up to its billing, but the view did not. I was pushed and pulled within the crowd and saw practically nothing. Oh well.

We went for a long walk around the lake and then to the train station. Upon arrival we boarded a slow train in low class seating. Instead of a chair I sat on a plank, there was no air conditioning. It smelled pretty bad. Interestingly, however, I sat next to a business woman from Hangzhou who spoke some English. She asked a few polite questions and then criticized CNN, a common conversation pattern during the months of April and May. After a scare upon arrival (we almost did not get off the train at the right stop) we were back in Jinhua, tired from a long day but glad to have seen the swell of Chinese excitement.

That Monday would be provide a strong contrast to the joy of the relay, as the entire nation would have a moment of silence to honor all lost to the massive Sichuan earthquake. The moment took place exactly one week after the disaster, and during my Grade One class. When the sirens started everyone in the class stood in silence for 10 minutes. This group has always been very quiet and reluctant to open up to me for a variety of reasons. But on this day I asked them to remain in silence after the official silence and write their feelings. Because this day belonged to the memory of Chinese people, English language did not need to be part of the day’s lesson.

After the students wrote out their emotions I invited them to the board to write what they wrote (in English or Chinese, as they wished). Usually such requests receive silence stares, but this day many students got up to take the chalk. The blackboard was a combination of Chinese and English writing that expressed both grief and pride. I learned how to write the Chinese characters for “sad” and added my message as well. The writing lasted for 15 minutes, until there was no more room on the board. For the last 10 minutes of class we all sat in silence and looked at the board. It was one of those special moments. When the bell rang no one flinched; we just sat together with our words in the open for everyone to see.

I wish I could say that since that special day I have had countless other moments with the same connection, but the truth is I haven’t. Both my students and I have made large strides toward each other this year, but we still do not seem to click consistently. In each of my classes more than half are engaged, but a strong third are not. Strangely, in the halls everyone acknowledges me with the same smile regardless of how tuned-in they are during class. Because of the language barrier, cultural differences, and the students’ circumstances, I really cannot evaluate my success or failure as a teacher here. But, I can say with confidence, it has been an honor to be part of this amazing year in China.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Entry Thirteen: Traveling with Amanda

[Due to recent limited internet access, the final three entries are late.]

It has been three weeks since I have been able to really write. I have been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, despite having plenty to say. It is hard to determine why I went on such a long hiatus, but my exit coincided with when the weather first became hot – and for that matter, my return to writing this afternoon takes place after they installed a working air conditioner in my office. I guess you could say things have finally cooled down (wink, wink).

Though there have been peaks and valleys in last few weeks, I continue to enjoy my time. Last Tuesday, after playing some ping pong with my friend Chan, we went out for dumplings and stewed duck heads. (Yes, it is exactly what you fear it is, and yes, I ate the brains, eyes, nostrils and even scrapped the palette off the top of the duck bill. It all tasted like duck, but was a certifiable texture-adventure.) Last Thursday I spent 4 hours in a tea house playing mahjong and answering cell phone calls for the Chinese people I was playing with. They get a kick out of me answering their cell phones. I don’t mind playing along.

So, as you can see, my personal life is really quite settled here. I would go so far as to say it is relaxing. The food is cheap, my hours are light compared with home, and I have lost about 30 pounds without complaint or struggle. But every now and again I get a hankering for a real marinara sauce, a good cup of coffee, and of course, my loved ones. Imagine my excitement when my girlfriend Amanda found a round trip plane ticket for $700.

I took the fast train to Shanghai the day before her arrival. I had hoped it would give me ample time to pick her up (which it did) and a chance to get acclimated with the city (more on that outcome later…). Because I am a cheapskate, I booked us a room in a hostel instead of a hotel. Even still, our hostel’s location was pretty ideal: 5 minutes by foot to centrally located People’s Square, and 10 minutes to the subway stop. Since I walk everywhere in Jinhua (I prefer the 3 mile stroll to Wal-Mart over paying cab fare), Shanghai seemed like a city of short cuts by comparison.

That evening I walked around our hostel looking for a bite to eat. I walked below one of Shanghai’s main roads, the mighty Ya-Nan elevated highway. I quickly found a food road. Unlike in Jinhua, the food vendors in Shanghai are aggressive. I had every fruit imaginable shoved in my face as I meandered around looking for a simple plate of tofu on the food road. Perhaps “food road” sounds a bit strange, but generally the city is organized in this way; each commercial street has a specialty. Walking that night I also found a road where all the shops were dedicated to costume fabric and lace, and another dedicated to musical instruments.

To my disappointment, the food road nearest to my hostel was dominated by tourist-friendly restaurants. In other words, there were picture menus and inflated prices. Three months ago I would have seen this as a relief, but now I see it as a hassle. So I just kept walking.

I walked until the bright lights of the big restaurants went dim behind me, and there I finally found a place serving what I was looking for. There was a man cooking with his open coal fire on the sidewalk. His eyes widened as I approached, like a hunter’s eyes watching a buck emerge from the brush. He tried and tried to sell me some barbequed chicken wings on a stick, but I wouldn’t give in. Finally I got a few words in and asked for a plate of tofu stir-fried with some greens, and a small bowl of rice. The man looked at me completely dumbfounded. My Chinese is not so poor that he couldn’t understand, and also not good enough to warrant such surprise. I am assuming that his shock was more a product of my ordering a cheap, nutritious meal and turning down all the options on a street designed to grab my interest. He then asked if I would eat here or go, and I readily replied that I would stay. He smiled a little as I entered under the aluminum roof.

I went inside and sat at a rickety table, the floor was atrociously dirty, the air conditioner broken and the leaking fluid pooled beneath me. Perfect (and I am not being sarcastic). Three months ago I might have been a little worried about the sanitation, but now I recognize such conditions as being suitable for locals. In other words, the food I was about to eat would probably taste better than the big restaurants and cost less than a US dollar. I was right on both accounts. Shanghai is known for being cosmopolitan and upscale, but I prefer the laid-back environment of tofu and greens on a street corner. Part of this has always been part of my personality, but in many ways my few months in China has made its mark. I am comfortable now, maybe even easy going. But on the downside, and maybe related to my writer’s block, I no longer have fresh eyes. Just in time for Amanda to arrive.

I walked to the subway the morning of her arrival only to be harassed by one of Shanghai’s many con-artists. A 19 year-old-ish kid approached me and began his script in passable English. It was the same garbage routine I heard 10 times during my first 2 visits to Shanghai: “I am a student, be my friend, help me practice, you are so handsome, come with me and be friends….” This time I interrupted him in Chinese to try to get him away from me. He wouldn’t budge. Finally I saw a tall, lanky blonde man walking with a briefcase. He was looking up at the skyscrapers in awe, clearly fresh off the plane. Without thinking, I pointed up ahead of me at the lanky newcomer and said, “There’s another one.” The kid looked up and walked quickly to the new target. Three steps later, it hit me. Why did I do that!? I am not proud or even amused by my action, but it shouldn’t be omitted. I am still pretty upset with myself about it.

Once on the subway I traveled to the Langyang Station, and then transferred to the Meglev. The Meglev is a German engineered monorail that connects PuDong International Airport with the city. It travels at a top speed of 400 km/hr, and turns what would be an hour taxi ride into 8 minutes. Like the airport it serves, everything about the ride is first class. After my arrival at the airport I sat alone in a café drinking Oolong tea and drew pictures of the wilted tulips at my table. I had two hours until her plane landed; one side effect of my travels, I am much more comfortable being alone, so waiting is never a problem.

My first mistake, my most serious mistake, and my most frequent mistake during Amanda’s visit was my struggle to be “Western” friendly. I planned our trip with great care, but made a ton of mistakes because I didn’t anticipate some of her basic needs. I am grateful she was such a trooper, because in retrospect I really was out of touch with what someone needs when they first arrive in China. How is that for ironic?

First mistake, I love mass transportation and walking. So, from the airport we took the Meglev to the subway. From the subway we walked to our hostel, carrying her monstrous luggage across busy streets and over foot bridges. Welcome to China!

After a brief rest I recommended that we go take a look at the Bund (Shanghai’s picturesque skyline on the Huang-Pu River). She agreed, and we departed again by foot because taking a taxi just did not occur to me.

Dog tired, and trying her best not to complain, she walked through smog and construction to see the Bund. I had told Amanda that Shanghai was similar to NYC, so she brought stylish clothes. Big fashion mistake! Shanghai is a city of earth tones. As if being fair skinned isn’t enough, her bright yellow outfit attracted the vendors’ attention like lions to a lamb. Needless to say, the Bund failed to impress after our 30 minute walk down busy streets and the harassment we endured.

Walking along the Bund we looked for a place to sit. A man in a blue polo waved us into a patio seat. We sat. He delivered two drinks neither of us ordered. Amanda was hungry, and since we somehow found ourselves sitting with drinks I thought we should get some food. I asked the vendor if he had any vegetables to cook on his barbeque. He replied no and acted really annoyed by either that I was speaking Chinese, or just because I was speaking to him. He pointed to what was already cooking. I asked to find out what it was. He said nothing. So I asked in Chinese, “Is this chicken.” He said yes. I bought three. I returned to the table bearing three meat kabobs for a hungry Amanda.

I don’t know what the meat was, but it was not chicken. As I munched my way through the first kabob I causally spit the fat onto the table. In China, you sort food out in your mouth and not with a knife. So, bones, fat, cartilage, and whatever else you don’t want to swallow, you just spit it on the table. Amanda almost screamed as I spat chunks of fat across the table in front of her. Again, I am a little out of touch.

I can eat handsomely in Jinhua for 4 days on 100 RMB, so I was stunned when the grumpy vendor (who all of a sudden could speak both English and Chinese) told me that 100 RMB was my bill. I complained about the price and the man’s colleague became a little angry. I decided I couldn’t put Amanda through a street argument, so I paid 100 RMB for 19 RMB worth of product. We then spent the next twenty minutes walking the Bund and being harassed by more vendors. Travel agent/Tour guide I am not.

The next day we got an early start to our first full day together in China and walked to the Shanghai Museum. We waited in line for about 30 minutes, but when we finally entered we were greeted with good news and bad news. Good news: admission was free because of the May Holiday. Bad news: I was in Shanghai during the May Holiday, when the busy city becomes the tourist destination for millions (more) of Chinese people.

Amanda enjoyed the museum, especially the minority costumes and a miniature furniture display. There are a tremendous number of Tibetan Buddhist relics in the museum: horns, countless statues, and other instruments of religious worship. Despite a 20th century of relative isolation, many of the other artifacts in the museum bear evidence to a history of communication with the outside world. Many vases and sculptures depict animals from the Middle East and North Africa, testimony to the long history of interaction between the Chinese and Arab world. There were also a few plates with heraldry from the Qing Dynasty, evidence of the emerging influence of the West in the 19th century. Some of the museum plaques carried the Communist Party’s characteristic tenor. My favorite example: “Pottery belongs to all of mankind, but porcelain is China’s invention.”

We left the museum and sat for a bit on a bench in the People’s Square, and grabbed lunch in a Hong Kong themed restaurant at the underground mall. She was so thrown off by the pickled mushrooms that garnished our spring rolls that she took a picture. Funny what interests people at first. After a walk through the mall, which by the way has a corporate sponsored “Old Shanghai” theme walk, we headed to Nanjing Lu – the most famous shopping street in China.

Due to the May Holiday, Nanjing Lu was absolutely mobbed and overwhelming. Amanda seemed dazed by all the goods for sale, and was uneasy about negotiating - just as I had been at first. After an hour or so of wandering we found a Starbucks, a retreat we would take many times during her visit. At this point her jetlag was kicking in, so we went back to the hostel. We abandoned plans to see an acrobat show and Amanda went to sleep while I, wide awake, ventured into the common room to read the May copy of National Geographic. It is a special edition dedicated to China; I read it cover to cover, absolutely compelling and on the mark.

Still not tired, I entered a game of billiards with a bloke from Oxford, England. He was 23 and teaching north of Beijing. We spoke at length about our experiences and world politics. Needless to say, our conversation was more interesting than our terrible billiards play. Meeting new people never gets old.

The next morning Amanda woke up hours before me, a product of jetlag. When I finally came around, we ventured out for some dumplings. We walked up and down the far end of the food street until I saw a place completely full of Chinese people. The dumplings here were more bready than any I have had in Jinhua, but they were delicious. After that, however, the day turned sour.

Amanda loves gardens, so the next stop was supposed to be the Yu-an Gardens. But, my errant directions took us far from our destination. We walked in stifling heat for the entire morning only to take a cab back to the hostel for rest three and half hours later. Once at the hostel I received new directions, and we again walked. This time we found the garden, but could not find the entrance. Amanda decided we should accept our fate, and renamed the place the Yu-Don’t-Exist Garden. But, I insisted we continue to look, and I foolishly took us into a strange city temple and then through a local park without luck. Finally, after a brief time being accosted by vendors in the infamous Dragon Market, we left for the hostel.

Maybe all this sounds like disastrous planning to you, but the fact is life here rarely goes as planned. For example, I was told I would start teaching new classes. Three day before my first class and I was still not told how many classes, or when the classes were, or what they hoped me to accomplish with the new classes. When the day finally came I taught the new classes and everything was fine. It is just the way things work here, and one just has to be flexible and relax. So, getting lost in Shanghai was, well, for me just another day.

But, with all the walking and misdirection, the day took its toll on Amanda (as it would have me, back in February). She didn’t complain, but her frustration and fatigue was obvious. That evening she naturally wanted to sleep, so I ventured out to eat Hot-Pot Chicken with the guy from Oxford. When I returned to the hostel I brought her back some noodles, which she enjoyed in the comfort of her room – far from the crowds and aggressive vendors. The next day we sat for a bit in the park, and then headed for Jinhua by train. Though Shanghai was not a complete disaster, I recognized that I had really lost touch and felt pretty bad about the time I had shown Amanda in the city. Fortunately, Jinhua is more my turf, and things would go much smoother in my Chinese hometown.

The train ride was very comfortable, as I had bought first class tickets on a fast train. One memory that lingers with me was my first train ride to Jinhua in February. It was a slow train for 5 hours surrounded by odors that are not fit for description. This time around it was 2 hours in luxury on the D train, and it still cost only $22 US dollars for each ticket.

Upon arrival to Jinhua we waited for Helen to pick us up, as she had planned to take me and Amanda out to dinner. Accompanied by Rosa, an outstanding English teacher who earlier this year taught me to make dumplings, Helen arrived. The first restaurant we visited was quite beautiful; however as we stood trying to get a table it dawned on Amanda and I that we were in the middle of a wedding reception. We stood there with all eyes on us for about three awkward minutes before we were hurried out of the building. Later that evening we would return to my apartment where, unannounced, a new resident was sitting on my couch. The mother of a local student, this new woman had begun to rent one of the vacant bedrooms in the apartment. No one told me ahead of time or introduced us. Over time she became a friend, so no worries – it is just the way it goes in Jinhua. Remember, one must relax and be flexible.

When we entered the next restaurant we were seated in a large room with one other family. Amanda commented later that two boys next to us had brought their pet hamsters and were playing with them in the restaurant, something I hadn’t even noticed. We ate cabbage, chicken, and a number of other staples. Amanda still had a hard time with the “spit on the table” reality of Chinese dining, but she liked most of the dishes. I was most surprised by my own reaction to returning to Jinhua. My three days in Shanghai was most time I had spent away from Jinhua in two months, and returning felt like a relief. I can’t wait for my real homecoming.

We spent the next few days introducing Amanda to my friends, relaxing, eating at my favorite local spots, and playing Sim City. Settled into Jinhua life, the next great challenge was on the horizon. Amanda had agreed to attempt to cook a marinara sauce as we threw dinner parties for my Chinese colleagues.

Please realize this sauce had to be from scratch. And I mean scratch. Tomatoes, garlic, onion and many other ingredients are readily available. But there is nothing in a can to shorten the process. So, using a giant pot we borrowed the night before from one of my student’s parents, Amanda boiled and skinned 60 or so tomatoes. Then, without a blender, she hand pressed each tomato through a strainer to mash them down to sauce consistency. My mother had mailed me parmesan cheese, basil, oregano and a few other spices impossible to find in China. Using the spices, and hours upon hours of cooking, Amanda did it. In the end it was DELICIOUS, spot on perfect, and a big hit among the dozen guests we had for our dinner. Later that Friday we would make the sauce again for another dozen of my Chinese colleagues and friends (except the second time I did much of the tomato mashing since I did not have classes.)

While in Jinhua we went to see the Double Dragon Caves, as I wrote about in an earlier entry. We were also the guests of many dinners across the city. She loved how convenient it is to buy fruit; at almost any hour on many street corners you can get a fresh cut pineapple for less than 30 cents. Amanda confirmed my impression that people in Jinhua are especially friendly, and the atmosphere is easy going. But I would have to say that the most memorable event of Amanda’s time in Jinhua County was when we left the city for the countryside.

Driving in the backseat of my colleague’s car, Amanda and I sat watching the scenery change from urban to rural. My friend and colleague Deborah had invited us to visit her husband’s relatives’ orange farm in the countryside. We drove for about an hour and arrived to a dirt road that meandered through bogs and agriculture, with smoke stacks looming in the distance. We drove past an abandoned cement runway, a relic from the days of the Cultural Revolution. The farm was similar to those I had seen earlier from my train window; meticulously cared for, but surrounded by pollution.

The farmers were self-sufficient, making their own wood crates and living from the sale of their staple crop. After a quick cup of tea we changed buildings to play some Mahjong. On the way we passed a building with a collapsed roof, Deborah said it was a former community hall that was never repaired after a storm decades ago. The narrow cement path eventually gave way to an opening with three buildings. We entered one of them and sat for Mahjong. Mahjong is a game played with tiles where you try to be the first to match groups of three. It is a traditional game whose rules are credited to the “Kingdom of Heaven” from the Taiping Revolution of the 19th century.

Deborah’s mother in law then entered bearing snacks she had bought from a person in the alley. It was a homemade delicacy that Deborah remembers as a special treat from when she was a child. It is a pig’s bladder stuffed with seasoned rice. Amanda began to squirm.

I insisted that Amanda and I weren’t too hungry and could share one between us. So I began to sink my teeth into the moist and rubbery bladder skin, revealing the rice inside. I ate as much of the bladder as I could. This allowed Amanda to nibble a bit of the rice to appease our host, who was very insistent that we eat up. I have every once of faith in Deborah and her family, but even me (Mr. Food Adventure) was a little nervous about this one. After all, I was eating a countryside bladder purchased in an alleyway days after the reported outbreak in my area of China. I did have a little stomach ache later that day, but it was nothing a little antacid couldn’t solve.

Saturday we took the morning train to Shanghai, from where we would depart at 7pm on an overnight train for Beijing. After our last experience in Shanghai, I was a little nervous about passing time between trains. But, we stored our luggage and hit the subway to find some shopping. We decided to head back to the Dragon Market for some shopping, but we did not know which subway line to take. Unlike last time, I was eager to have exact directions. A tall foreigner, obviously America, was reading a map with his Chinese (guessing) girlfriend. I asked for directions, and the plan was made.

Thirty seconds later the plan changed as the American returned, introduced himself as Jeremy. He asked if he and his girlfriend could tag along since they were headed in that direction anyway. As luck, or fate, would have it, it was with Jeremy’s assistance that Amanda and I actually found the once elusive Yu-An Gardens. Amanda took my camera and went on a garden-lover’s-picture-spree. The garden was quite beautiful, a true refuge from the bustle and skyscrapers of Shanghai. I was thrilled she enjoyed herself, and later after some shopping we parted ways with Jeremy and headed back to the train station.

On the way to our train passed by a Subway restaurant and grabbed two sandwiches. When we made it to the station all of the seats were taken in the waiting area, so we sat on the floor. Hungry from all the walking, Amanda began to eat her sub. I had to smile at what travel can do to a person. One week earlier she was decked out in high fashion and cosmetics, and here was Amanda now comfortably eating a sandwich sitting on the floor of a crowded Chinese train station.

The overnight train to Beijing is the way to travel. For $65 USD one can get a comfortable soft bed in a climate controlled room with only 3 other people. The train departs at 7pm from Shanghai and you wake up at 8am in Beijing, having saved the money you would have spent on a hotel room. Since I fund all of my own travel in China, I was happy to find such an inexpensive option.

Our first day in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the larger-than-life dynastic palace in the heart of Beijing. We spent practically an entire day walking from place to place in the palace and covered only about a third of it. It is too big for words.

Our second day in Beijing was for one purpose only, to see the Great Wall. Once again, with my wallet thinning by the moment, we needed the cheapest possible option. We found it. Taking a tour with a tour guide and a bus can cost over $100 US per person. Taking a taxi to the nearest Wall point and back can cost $80 USD per person. BUT, if you know which bus to take and do not mind a bumpy ride in a crowded bus, you can get to Ba-Da-Ling (one of the most popular spots on the wall) for about $5 US per person round trip! I love mass transportation.

BaDaLing is a microcosm of “progress” in China. I put “progress” in quotations because sometimes what is hailed as progress feels a little awkward. This is especially true at the ancient sites. There is a superhighway/expressway that leads to the Great Wall entrance, and an Animal Safari Park nearby along with another “fun park” under construction. The wall is ancient however well restored and smalltime vendors peddle their traditional gifts along the way. For about $5 you can have your picture taken on a camel. There is a Starbucks. The view from any one of the towers shows rolling hills and extraordinary mountains to the north. Alongside the wall stands a giant Olympics-logo sign. That's tourist-China.

We climbed for a bit, Starbucks in hand, when a few tourists walked by us and pointing. One said in clearly American-English, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Starbucks?” I nodded, but even as I drank my macchiato, I was thinking the same thing.

Having saved money from the bus ride and the overnight train, I was ready to take Amanda for a nice dinner. Enough of this roughing it, it was time for some class! I asked the front desk clerk for the best Peking Duck in Beijing, regardless of price. She insisted to know how much I planned to spend, and I confirmed price was no object. She called ahead and made reservations, and smiled as she gave me the directions written in Chinese.

Amanda and I put on our “nice” clothes and headed out the door excited for an evening with a hint of luxury. We caught a cab and were on our way when the cabby stopped and told us to walk across the intersection. I was baffled; there was nothing that looked like a nice restaurant on the other side. We crossed and found what looked like a slum, an old Hu Tong village with garbage in the streets and sewage stink in the air. A rickshaw driver took one look at us, decked out in dressy clothes, and came for us. He pleaded with us to get in, but I was skeptical. After a few moments of negotiation and his insisting he knew where we were trying to go, I agreed and in the rickshaw we went. Instead of driving around the slum, we drove deeper into it. Amanda began to look nervous, and I was worried I had fallen into some kind of trap. Finally he stopped at a rundown building with a duck painted on it. I sat in disbelief as the driver said in Chinese, “we have arrived.” I looked down at my reservation paper and the phone number matched the number painted on the side of the building. Indeed, we had arrived.

We were hurried in through a door into a small restaurant with four or so rooms, as smoke from the kitchen clouded the air. The floor was covered in filth, and when we arrived at our table, the window we sat next to was broken. A waitress came to deliver the menu. The wine list was 40 pages long, and the multilingual menu displayed duck prepared in every way you could imagine and at a price that would make you blush. I looked up and saw the plates on other tables and realized we had indeed arrived at the best duck restaurant in Beijing.

Before she had arrived in Shanghai I was always keen to find the place that didn’t look good but was full of customers, like the tofu I had the night before her flight. It seems traveling with Amanda had revived my “western” sense about things, but after a few deep breaths in a Hu Tong slum I was comfortable again. We ordered a roasted duck, complete with the whole spread and ate like crazy. The food was spectacular.

The next day we got lost around Tiananmen Square looking for a bus that, as it turns out, did not exist. It made for a less memorable day (hey, relax, that’s how it goes), but when we finally arrived at the Summer Palace we had a nice walk around the grounds. We did not know it at the time, but while we were looking out at the water at the palace, a major earthquake hit Sichuan Province of China.

That evening on our return trip from Beijing we shared a soft sleep cabin with 2 graduate students, one from Shanghai and the other from Taiwan. They spoke about how the election of Taiwan’s new (generally pro-China) President was going to bring positive change in the next year, and also expressed optimism about China’s relationship with a new U.S. President. I have had a lot of political conversations about the U.S. election in the last month, something I have really enjoyed. One of the graduate students was studying law, but said her dream was to be a flight stewardess. She was pretty frank about the lack of an independent judicial system, and her interest in law was not going to translate into the career of her liking. We talked and talked, apparently ignorant of the earthquake.

The next day I delivered Amanda to the airport and began my lonely trip back. When my train came to a halt at the Jinhua station I saw that on the outbound track there was a long flatbed cargo train with medical army vehicles and jeeps. They were tied down and ready for departure. Only then did I realize something else serious had happened.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Entry Twelve: A Friendly Exchange

Make no mistake about it; the 2008 Olympic Games are extremely symbolic for the Chinese people and government. I have already written at length about the Olympic themed English-speaking theater competition. Well, just last weekend I did some hiking and at the summit guess what I found…a red banner welcoming the Olympics! Even the landscaping at the school celebrates the approaching games, with hedges planted and cut to resemble the Olympic Rings and other official logos. Yet as you know, internationally it seems that these Olympics have come to symbolize different things for different people.

The last few weeks have seen their fair share of controversy in China. Many of my Chinese friends have told me that they are receiving all sorts of political text messages on their cell phones. Most of these text messages echo what is readily available on blogs throughout China. People here are calling for a boycott of western products in reaction to the torch relay protests in England, France and America. The Chinese Government has made public statements urging against such protests, and instead asking people to “to express our patriotic enthusiasm calmly and rationally.” That being said, the protests are being allowed to happen, which requires the approval of someone in the government.

Teaching English in China has been a challenge for a History teacher, but I must admit that lately I have felt a little more useful. The international protests and the Chinese domestic response have raised awareness among the people here. Students, colleagues and friends alike have approached me to have conversations on this issue. I am grateful that our relationship is such where they feel they can approach me.

Most people want to know why the western media is (in their words) “so biased,” and why western leaders are supporting what they see as separatism. After all, as one Chinese student said to me, “America crushed separatism during the American Civil War.” Indeed the student is correct, and there are other examples as well. That does not, of course, make what is happening in China any more correct or incorrect – but it is a meaningful observation.

Everyone here wants to know my opinion on this issue, but I must admit that I am cautious to carry an opinion. I have access to CNN and the BBC, as well as Chinese news sources. But, I still feel there is a serious lack of verifiable information at this time. I am trying to avoid applying my western expectations of media and becoming cynical; it’s just a fact that media is a different animal in China.

The media here is not privately owned, and therefore operates under the auspices of the government. People openly admit that much of it is propaganda, but I have also seen some interesting policy debates on CCTV9 (the English language station). The media in the US is privately owned and has special rights reserved in the Bill of Rights. Debate, sometimes very harsh, is the norm. Yet, it is only fair to mention that even though the western media has complete control over its own coverage, it does not always report accurately.

In 2000, the major media networks declared Al Gore as President of the United States. I remember the night vividly. I was 17, and politically active in Southern Maine. That evening I was working in a “political war room” making phone calls to encourage last minute voters on the west coast. When the result was announced we all went home. Who I worked for in 2000 is immaterial, both campaign staffs reacted the same way – the election was over, people went home. But, of course, the election was not over – and the media, in a gross miscalculation, errantly and prematurely declared a victor. It is difficult to determine the motivation behind and impact of the media’s misinformation, but regardless, it happened.

I am not saying that the Chinese media and the American media are the same or guilty of the same misinformation. That is not the case. Rather, just keep in mind that no media source has a perfect track record. Citizens should always think critically about information received from a secondary source – especially today’s media, whether it is motivated by government officials or Nielsen Ratings.

As I mentioned before, I have access to the BBC and CNN. These web pages load in (and only in) English. Some of the editorials have been harsh, and I know a few people who are authentically angry about what has been written. Many here feel that Americans are misinformed by a biased media, and are unnecessarily politicizing what should be a celebration of the Olympic Spirit. I am quick to point out that protests are fairly common in the history of the Olympics, and not an uncommon form of expression in western countries. While this answer is accepted by most, it does not seem to satisfy anyone. Still others insist that the “West” is threatened by China’s growth and will do anything to hurt China’s image. Though I feel this opinion is not well supported with evidence, it is quite common. One thing is for sure, if protesters felt their actions would dissuade the Chinese government, it appears (at least in Jinhua) that the most tangible result has been to intensify Chinese nationalism.

The good news (especially for a foreigner hoping to travel in the next few months) is that it seems both sides are taking steps to reconcile. Today I read that the new French President made a number of formal apologies and other moves to improve relations. And, in what I interpret as a partial acknowledgement of the recent criticism, the Chinese government has publicly made a number of statements on the issue of human rights. This includes the Minister of the Information saying, "We are clearly aware of the need to keep advancing human rights." The article, published in the English language version of China Daily, also stated that “the country still faces many problems and difficulties in its human rights development, with the democracy and legal system yet to be improved.” Actions speak louder than words, but nevertheless, such official statements should be taken seriously by observers. [As a side comment, I recommend spending a few moments performing the same site search on the BBC as you do on China Daily. Contrast and compare the content.]

Yet, of course, I have friends in America who feel that China’s response is not enough. I also have friends in China that feel Western attempts are not enough. So, where does that leave me? For a variety of reasons, I have been concentrating my energy on forming relationships instead of arguments. In this spirit, I have been immersing myself into cultural exchanges as often as possible.

As usual, I eat the traditional food and play ping pong with everyone and anyone who is up for a game. In exchange I have tried to expose my students to American musical genres, but the language barrier has prevented us from analyzing the lyrics deeply enough. After a fit of brainstorming, I finally came up with a worthwhile unit that everyone could participate in: baseball!

The average Chinese person considers baseball a “wealthy sport” that requires expensive equipment. Baseball is not only unpopular, it basically does not exist. But, given that the population loves hand-eye coordination sports (ping pong, badminton, etc.) I just refuse to accept the status quo. Full baseball equipment is expensive, but not so with wiffle ball! My mother airmailed me 2 bats and 4 wiffle balls, and I built my lesson plans.

First we learned the vocabulary of the equipment and positions. We learned the lyrics and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We read an article about the Chinese Olympic Baseball Team, and wrote a short opinion essay on the future of baseball in China. From there we talked about American expressions connected to baseball. There are a surprising number of them: “That came of out of left field.” “Take another swing at it.” “Right off the bat.” “Ballpark figure.” And then, finally, we went outside to play ball.

Using the stone pattern on the campus’s Central Square as our baseball diamond, we played for a full period. One of my students, who uses “King Kong” as his English name, absolutely crushed the ball for a double. It was fun, and many students are begging to play again during the weekend.

There is something special about sports that can transcend everything else. Certainly sports are not unique in this way; I have seen music, art, and food perform the same feat of bringing people together. Indeed, I have had many such moments here in China. I do not concede my opinions or dismiss my identity, but I use these moments to find the common ground necessary to build relationships. These strong relationships have proven crucial when trying to negotiate my way through misunderstandings and disagreements.

As world leaders address the many pressing issues worthy of political cooperation, I am beginning to see the primacy of personal relationships ahead of politics. After all, being “right” alone does not mean you can be effective in creating change; not to mention “right” can be a matter of perspective. So, it seems reasonable to suggest that things might progress more smoothly if our political solutions were born from strong and positive personal relationships. From this perspective, I am especially proud to be part of our exchange program.

I apologize if I seem a little dramatic, or if I am inflating the significance of exchange programs and teaching a few kids to play baseball… but the mood is that dramatic right now in China, at least during my private conversations. People here have overcome a lot in the last half-century, and are ambitious to achieve greater prosperity. Bottom line; they want to know if America is an ally or something else.

When pressed with this question I immediately avoid discussing geopolitics, and try to bring this huge question down to a personal level. I will do the same now, with my American audience in mind.

When I look at my Chinese friends I see hard-working common folks who shop at Wal-Mart and just want to give their kid a better life. Their government isn’t perfect, and they know it, but change does not happen over night. They value their traditions, but are curious about other people too. Sometimes they feel stressed out about money, or tired at the end of the week, but that does not stop them from having a good time when friends are around.

I am proud to call a number of people here my friend, and believe that with a little patience and honesty between us, we can accomplish more as friends than we will otherwise. Our government, media, etc. is different - but fundamentally people are people, and for the time being, that is what I am going to focus on.

****EPILOGUE:

Here are a few excerpts I pulled from my students' essays on the future of baseball in China. My impression is that there is a debate within China between those who favor international experiences and those are more cultural traditionalists. It may be a stretch to say these excerpts can serve as a primary source of this cultural debate, but it is worth noting the context. The class was almost evenly divided as to whether or not baseball would ever be popular in China.

“Everyone knows China is good at ball games such as table tennis, volleyball. Baseball is also a ball sport.”

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“I think the most important two characters are the batter and the pitcher. So everyone wants to be one of the two and doesn’t want to be the other characters.”

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“It is very expensive for Chinese right now. But Chinese is richer and richer.”

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“We know baseball is very popular in America. Now China will develop in world. So I think the baseball will be popular in China.”

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“Baseball will be at the Olympics and the Olympics this year will be held in China. More and more Chinese will pay more attention in baseball.”

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“Because everything about the baseball was very expensive, so I think the Chinese may not like it.”

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“It’s difficult to get a team together.”

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“If there is a very handsome baseball player, he is good at it and he is famous. Then a lot of people will try to play baseball because of him.”

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“As communication between America and China become more and more frequent, baseball, the very important sport, will also go into China quickly.”

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“No coach, no experience, no players and even no fans. So I think that baseball won’t be popular.”

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“As the world touch in with each other more and more, baseball games will attract more and more people’s eyes.”

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“Equipment is impossible to find.”

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“Baseball isn’t very popular here just because we don’t know it well. So in my opinion, baseball will be known by Chinese maybe 10 or 20 years later, at that time, you will see Chinese playing baseball everywhere.”

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“Baseball is not a very safe sport. If a person first plays baseball, maybe he can’t control the ball, so the naughty ball may hurt people.”

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“Baseball has been dropped from the Olympics in 2012… it will make people less interested in baseball.”

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“There are TV and computers in every family. They can watch it at home.”

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“No. Chinese people don’t like violent sports. Baseball is too violent.”

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“No. Baseball is harder to learn than such as basketball and football. And as we all know, people play baseball need a large place. But China has so many people that there are not enough places for them to play baseball.”

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“Teamwork is very important in playing baseball, and teamwork is also important nowadays.”

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“Firstly, I think baseball developed very slowly in the past years. It shows that many Chinese people are not interested in playing baseball…. Baseball is too heavy, as Chinese are very thin and small, it’s not easy for them to do well in baseball.”

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“Chinese like sports of all kinds.”

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“In my opinion baseball will be popular in China. Because the world becomes smaller and smaller. Then people will communicate close. As we Chinese, we’ll come into the “world family.” Since Americans and some other foreign countries like baseball, we’ll also develop our baseball.”

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“Baseball may be popular in USA, it may not be popular everywhere.”


***



Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Entry Eleven: The Students



Our county, also called Jinhua, has a set of high schools to serve the very large population. The schools are ranked using a system based on the test scores of graduates. Because admission to the school is also based on test scores, the ranking is pretty stable. I teach at the number two middle school in Jinhua. They call it a middle school, but the students are of our high school age.

There are two ways to gain admittance to this competitive school. The first method, as previously stated, is to score very well on exams. The other method, which is less common, is to pay a heft tuition bill. Basically, the wealthy students pay to subsidize the education of the high test score students. There are a few athletes on scholarship as well, and I also think there is a special relationship for children of faculty at the attached University.

So, as you can see, the public high school system is run more like a set of private schools. And, in a sense, the admission process for high school in China is similar to the college admissions process in America (although the emphasis is solely on exam scores). Because of this system, students come from all over Zhejiang Province to attend the number two school. Many live much too far away to be bused in every day, which is fine, because the school is residential.

The campus looks more like a university than a high school. There are two fenced in dormitories, one for boys and one for girls. There is a massive four story cafeteria, as well as a convenience store. At this store I have bought everything from a bottle of water to fruit to stationary to ping pong supplies (I am improving). The athletic complex is impressive, and includes many basketball courts, volleyball courts, tennis courts, ping pong rooms, and a track and field. At the center of campus is a square or quad with administrative buildings to one side, and the classroom buildings on the other. The landscaping has flowers, as well as a pathway around a man made pond. It is a beautiful place to teach, and I suppose to live as well. The student body, well over three thousand students, lives at school six days a week. Many only go home only once a month. All of the schools I am familiar with in China are residential.


Primary school students appear to attend school in the same city where they live, and go home at supper time. I work with a group of primary school students on Sunday nights. They speak very little English, but are in the process of learning it and improving. There are whispers among the faculty that there are proposals to require even more English education to create a bilingual society. I love working with the little kids, and perhaps will dedicate a future blog to them. At this point however, I am most familiar with high school.

The high schoolers' day seems grueling, from before 7am until about 10pm. But, the students have lengthy breaks in the day to let off steam and work on homework. The lunch break is more than two hours long, and many students will take thirty minutes of that time to play basketball or tap a nap. After dinner there are classes until 7pm, followed by monitored study sessions until the end of the day. This is a time for students work on their homework, which they have a lot of here.

The stakes are very high in Chinese education. The competition in the job market is fierce, and because of the one child policy there is a lot riding on the success of ‘only-child’ students. Examinations, a long tradition in Chinese education, still plays the central role in determining where a student attends college and what they do after. With all of this pressure it easy to understand why my students enter my class acting a little less serious. There is no exam connected to my class, and frankly, they need the break.

Some of my students are now participating in a pen pal program with a few students at OHCHS. If you have interest in joining such a program, please email my school address: jlong@sad17.k12.me.us

Below I have included anonymous excerpts from some of these letters for your consideration. The excerpts are unedited; however I omitted sections that could be used to identify the student, and also the repetitive introductory paragraphs. I hope you get a sense for how sincere these students are, and maybe a taste of their many different personalities as well.

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“You like field hockey and lacrosse. Mr. Long has described those to me, but I don’t how it look like either because in China we cant see the,. I like shopping too, that’s cool! But sometime I only do window-shopping, and that’s also attract me. When I am shopping I can forget everything. Do you think I am crazy?

My father is a college teacher, he teaches biology. His school is beautiful, and I’m going to study there one year later.”

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“In China, all the student are very tired everday. In our school, we get up at 6 o’clock in the morning. Then we do some exercises. We have 5 classes in the morning until 12 o’clock. In the afternoon we have 3 classes. In the evening, we can’t go home because all the students live in the school. There are so much homework, we always do them in the evening. At 10:10 pm we can go to bed.

Except the hard life, there are many rules in our school. We can’t talk mobile phone, mp3, mp4. We can’t make boyfriends or girlfriends. In class, we must keep quiet. In our class there are 47 students. Luckily, they are all friendly and lovely. So it makes our life not very terrible.”

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“You ask me write about some delicious food so you can make it. Oh I think its hard work because Chinese food always very complex. I can teach you an easy one. Does there have cucumber? You can buy them from the supermarket. Then cut them into pieces. Put them in a small dish, then put vinegar, soy, salt, and mix them even. After some minutes, you can eat it.”

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“I study in No. 2 middle school of my city. We have a lot of homework everyday. That is boring, I think. I go back home once a week, but sometimes two weeks. I think its happy to stay in school at weekends, we can do what we want to do but we cant during the weekdays.

I have one elder sister, she is beautiful. She studies design. We lived in a village with a big river. And there’s a big tree, about 25 meters or higher. I can cook Chinese food good, and I like playing basketball.”

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“This week our class has a basketball competition. I hope we will win. Our competitor is so strong. Girls will play volleyball in May.”

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“My home is very near to my school. What is funny is that I spend my primary school in Jinhua. I spend my middle school in Jinhua. Also I spend my high school in Jinhua. What is worse is that I will spend my university life in Jinhua. Do you think it’s a very gloomy thing?”

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“I like playing volleyball and badminton. I also like shopping and reading. Our school is very beautiful we think, we very like it. But we are very busy everyday. We have a lot of homework. We live in school. Every month we go home a time. We very envy your life.”

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“Last weekend I went home to celebrate the Tomb-Sweeping Day. It’s our traditional festival. On that day, my family went to the hills where our ancestor’s tombs were there, to memory them. Also we ate traditional food called “Qing Ming Guo”, sweet or salt but very delicious.”

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“I am a lucky dog because all of the people surrounding me are so friendly. I also play with them. I am happy all the time especially with weather is sunny. I like listening to the music like you. I think music is a magical thing. It can let me feel excited and forget the unhappy, tired, angry things.

My English vocabulary is limit. So I can’t express myself. I can’t describe Chinese culture. But don’t be sad. I will work hard to learn English to tell you more. Talk to you soon.”

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“My school is Jinhua No. 2 Middle School. It is a beautiful school. Most students in our class are living in school. I like to live with my classmates. We always play games, talk to each other and so on. I’m very happy to stay with my friends.”

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“Every day the teacher told us we must study hard or we can’t go to the better school. Every day is very busy for us. We have many homework to do, like Chinese, English, Math, history and so on. The reason of that is we have a large population in China.

My hobby is swimming, playing piano and playing “Gu zheng.” Gu zheng is a kind of Chinese musical instrument.”

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“I’m excited to have the opportunity to be writing to you. It’s been an interest of mine for years to talk to a teenager like myself that’s actually from America.”

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“The most important festival in China is the Spring Festival. It likes your Christmas holiday. People usually visit relatives during that time. Some of them go to shopping in supermarket to prepare the biggest supper the day before it.

On that day, most people will play with the fireworks to celebrate. When people hear the loud sound from fireworks, everyone smiles for looking forward to next harvest year coming.

In 2008, Beijing will hold the 29th Olympic Games. I wish it will be held successfully and give people all over the world a strong impression.

We will make friends at that time. It is really a good opportunity to communicate with people from all over the world. China will catch this chance to develop our economy. I have confidence to believe China will be more and more beautiful in the future.

America is a mystery place. When I was young I wish to go there for studying. Now I’m approaching my dream. I think it will come true for sometime. The most thing I like is American’s food. I like the taste of the food, like the potato chips and chickens.”

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“I have ever been to England and Australia, so I know some about your live, believe I can imagine. And we have been learned about American history, it is wonderful. In my spear time I often read books, play with my friends, and surf the internet. I can play basketball as a sport, but I am not very good at it. I love horses, too. I rode horses when I was in Australia. I enjoy that feeling.”

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“I stay at school. I come back home once a month. We can’t stay with our parents usually so we do everything by ourselves. It can make us self-made. I think you are more independent than us. Commonly Chinese parents are more doting to children than American parents. Maybe you are right.”

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“In school days, I live in school with 5 classmates. We are in a special class. We don’t need to have exam when we go to university. Because that the study for us isn’t very important like others. But its still very heavy. We have 8 classes a day and we often study more than 10 hours. Maybe you feel it is unbelievable but it is true.

Even that, we still have free time to doing other things. I like reading and I have read many books. Do you read Harry Potter? It is really beautiful magic world. Also, I like watch NBA basketball games. Do you like it? Which team and basketball star is your favorite?”

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“I have many friends who are kind and humor. Saturday is the most happy day to me. After class, I can go outside for shopping, eating all kinds of food with my friends. In evening, we can talk with each other and sing until late in the night because we are free, there are no teachers in charge of us. That’s mainly life in the school. What do you think of it?”

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Well, so what do you think of it? Please post comments.

Final note: I have been invited to judge another festival, this time live on TV. As far as I can tell, the only credential I carry to earn me this TV honor is that they "need a foreigner." I think that is a strange thing to "need," but as always, I don't mind.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Entry Ten: The Olympic Stage

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few weeks, you know that the Olympics are rapidly approaching. The international response to the torch relay is not something that I have discussed with many people here; I figure if they want to talk about it with me they will broach the issue. I usually have access to western media, so I am aware of the controversy. Naturally, different news sources are presenting different perspectives. My aim with this entry, however, is not to make a political statement one way or the other, but rather to try and put the Olympics (and all that comes with it) into the context of what it means for everyday people in Jinhua. I will do this by attempting to act as an ethnographer, and offer my observations as your primary source.

Disclaimer: I fully recognize that a single event is not a decisive representation of China or attitudes in China. I only offer these summaries of what I saw for your academic consideration. While my writing is not sound ethnography, it is an honest attempt to produce a primary source for your evaluation.

Background: Two weeks ago I was invited to serve as a judge in an English speaking competition. This year’s competition was different from years past because the format was one-act theatre, and the theme was the upcoming Olympics. In a three day county-wide event, all schools (primary, middle and high school) sent participants. I was one of five judges, and in addition to enjoying the performances, we were treated to an impressive lunch each day of the festival.

If you have been to a high school one-act or music festival in the states, I would say the atmosphere was similar however here there was a more to the pomp and circumstance: dramatic intro music, 2 well dressed MCs, lots of flowers, etc.

The most important judging criterion on the score sheet was English Pronunciation, worth 40% of the score. Other categories included Harmonious Cooperation (10%), Artistry (20%), Stage Performance (20%) and Scene Development (10%). Of the five judges, two were from America (Courtney, who has taught in China for over 2 years, and myself), another was a Chinese-English teacher turned curriculum administrator (for those familiar with our exchange program, it was Angela), a Chinese-English professor from the University, and a Theater Professor from the University who did not speak English. It was a real pleasure to serve in this capacity, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

The plays I have summarized are listed in no particular order. Given the topic and the timing of this festival, I hope you find the plots as interesting as I have.

Reading Target: My recommendation for students and readers alike is to read and analyze these summaries looking for patterns and connections to currents events and your prior knowledge. I offer five questions to guide your reading.

  1. What common themes, issues and/or messages are present in the plays?
  2. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive itself?
  3. Given these sources, how does 'China' perceive people not from China?
  4. Hypothesize about the impact of these Olympics on everyday life in China.
  5. Hypothesize about the Chinese perception of what these Olympics represent.
  6. Finally, how do these primary sources influence your perspective on China?

Play One: The Torch Bearer Competition

Grade Level: Primary School

Twenty young children, maybe third graders, begin the performance by dancing in green costumes. They are all girls. As the song concludes the dancers take positions in the background; it looks like a forest. In the back center stage a boy dressed like a lion stands and stretches as if waking up. He yells, “Sensational News!” Four other children dressed as animals appear: one boy as an elephant, a girl as a puppy, another boy as a monkey, and the final girl as an animal that I could not identify. The lion explains that the Olympics are coming and they must select a torch bearer from the forest. Each of the 4 animals argues why they are the most deserving of the honor. The lion looks around and asks, “What about turtle?” Turtle slowly arrives and concedes he does not have the strength, speed or wit of the other animals. As he sulks the lion decides there will be a competition to elect the torch bearer, and it will be a race through the forest. Music starts and they run around the stage. The puppy character, neck in neck with the others, falls into a river (blue fabric being held and waved by either side of the stage). The three other leading animals watch her struggle and decide to carry on with the race. A bit later the trailing turtle sees the puppy struggling in the river and leaves the race to rescue her. As the three lead animals finish the race they all cheer for themselves, however the lion declares the turtle as the winner. The lion roars, “Do you know the lesson of the Olympics? It is harmony and friendship!” Turtle enters the scene helping the puppy walk and receives a torch. The students then sing a song and dance holding a “Beijing Olympics” sign. The play concludes with a bow.

Play Two: Spending Money

Grade Level: Performed once by a primary school, and three times by different middle schools

The play opens with a colorfully dressed person who introduces herself (a female in all four performances) as a candy maker. The set includes a large table with colorful decorations and a sign that reads, “Sweet Shop.” The candy maker explains that she sells candy to children at the school gate and is making lots of money. She says she is placing Olympic logos on her products and it is contributing to her success. She then begins to make candy, explaining the process. During the candy making she sneezes a few times on the candy, and admits her hands are dirty. She claims she does not care, and admires her finished product. She tries to sell candy to two school children, but the children have no money. The two children (girls in all four performances) go home to ask for money. One of the girls suggests that they compliment a parent (three times a father, once a mother) in order to get some money. They do so, but are told not to use the money for sweets. The students make a promise and then promptly go back to the sweet shop and buy the candy anyway. There are people dressed as large packaged candy. The candy people complain that they are dirty and cry. The students buy the candy anyway, much to the candy maker’s delight. Later, the girls return to the parent complaining of a stomach ache. The parent scolds them for lying and then goes to the candy maker. When the parent arrives to confront the candy maker there is a police officer (always in some uniform, three times the kid had a full PRC military officer’s uniform). The official questions the parent and then screams at the candy maker, demanding that the candy maker leave. The students apologize for lying and the candy maker is dragged off stage. A narrator enters and makes comments. Part of these comments includes, “There are more foreigners coming to China for the Olympics, and phenomena such as this must be reduced. We must show a good face to the foreigners.” The play concludes with a bow.

Play Three: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: Middle School

A small boy enters the stage and wanders about. 15 or so larger boys enter the stage in formation carrying very convincing toy guns. The young boy says he wants to join the army, but is told by the tallest boy that he is not ready. There is dialogue that is difficult to understand. They then dance with the guns. The boy follows the soldiers but gets lost in what he calls “the forest.” He receives the help of someone dressed like one of the Olympic mascots, and eventually finds his way. There is more dancing, this time by 15 girls dressed in schoolgirl uniforms. The soldiers reenter the scene looking for the young boy, and the boy confidently finds them. The boy is told he has passed “the test” and is given a very large toy gun. All of the students, male soldiers with guns and female dancers, take the stage in a tight formation and march a few steps. They repeat a slogan a few times, saying, “The Olympics are coming, we must obey our word.” They march off stage.

Play Four: Beijing is Ready!

Grade Level: Once by a middle school, once by a high school

The play begins with many different school children on the stage, some with books and others with basketballs. All exit except for three. There is a girl with a book sitting in the back, and two boys with brooms. A sign divides the stage into “Class A” and “Class B.” The boy in “Class B” sweeps a plastic bag away from his side and onto the “Class A” side. The other boy returns the same action. They speak for a while about the incident and begin to grab and push each other, still talking about the bag on the floor. The girl sitting in the back rises and says, “It is no problem, it is our duty.” She takes the bag and disposes of it in a waste barrel. The two boys apologize. All exit. More students arrive and explain they will compete for a position as an Olympic Volunteer in Beijing. As they compete one of the three is less aggressive, and offers help to his opponents. Much of the scene is difficult to understand because of technical malfunctions. The less aggressive competitor is awarded the position. All enter the stage and sing, and form the Olympic Ring logo with hula-hoops. They unfurl a banner that reads, “Welcome the Olympic. Improve Manners.” They shuffle off stage maintaining their formation.

Play Five: Snow White goes to Beijing

Grade Level: Middle School

The play begins with Snow White and seven dwarfs exclaiming that they should visit the Olympics. There is a bubble machine filling the air around Snow White. A sign suggests that they have arrived in Beijing and they ask for directions. There is a song. A witch appears and places a spell on their map and on different signs that now randomly switch direction. When the witch appears there is a smoke machine that creates smoke around her. Snow White and the dwarfs wander on stage. A vendor enters with a cart. He says, “Look, Look, See, See, Yummy, Yummy, Cheap, Cheap.” Snow White buys some food from him and asks how much longer they must walk to get to the stadium. The vendor explains they went in the wrong direction. The dwarfs cry. The vendor offers to take them to their destination. All cheer. As they arrive to a gate (complete with torches topped with electric lights) the witch appears again. She attempts to cast a spell, however nothing happens. She exclaims, “Oh no, the Olympic torch!” She falls. All sing, and say “Welcome to the Olympics. Welcome to Beijing. Welcome to China!” All bow and leave the stage.

Play Six: The Olympics are Coming!

Grade Level: performed by 4 different middle school groups, and 2 high school groups

Two girls enter the stage wearing blonde wigs and baggy clothes. There is a man with a table and red umbrellas. He says, “Looky, Looky.” He then speaks in Chinese. The two girls explain that they do not understand the “strange language.” Another student appears and offers to help as a translator. The translator and the vendor speak in Chinese, and then the translator explains that the vendor wants to sell things to the two blonde girls. The girls look at the umbrellas and agree to purchase a red umbrella. The translator speaks about the significance of the color red for the Chinese. The blonde girls say, “Awesome!” After they leave, the vendor walks around the stage with a book reciting English expressions. The translator later returns and is greeted by the vendor in English. The vendor explains that learning English will not make him “forget the mother language” and he is happy to learn “a useful language.” The two blonde girls reappear. They meet the translator and invite her to a picnic. During the picnic the translator explains that the vendor has recently learned English. One of the blonde girls exclaims, “It is so wonderful, the Chinese are very good at learning languages!” They then agree to visit the vendor, who reappears at the corner of the stage with five students dressed as the “Five Friendlies.” [These are the five mascots of the Beijing Olympics] He introduces each of the five characters, who then in turn talk about themselves. There is a fish, a flame, a panda, an antelope and a swallow; each has symbolic significance that they explain. The blondes ask how much to buy all five, and the price is 350 RMB. They make the purchase, and then the group gathers at center stage for a song and to bow.

Play Seven: Hero

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with a man who introduces himself as a king. There are two people at his side. A character in red appears and claims to have killed would-be assassins. When the king demands proof, the one in red opens a computer and asks the king to watch. Four people (two boys, two girls) enter the stage to different pop music songs. Once all together, they dance. In the background, the boy in red explains how he killed the first assassin. A girl in white (who is the younger version of the boy in red during this flashback, as a narrator explained) engages in a sword fight with one of the assassins, and wins. Then two other assassins enter the stage. The boy assassin asks the girl what she wants for her birthday, and the girl replies that he must kill the king. The boy refuses, saying, “But I am a good egg.” The girl then threatens to kill him too. The younger version of the boy in red appears again, and offers to sing a song to calm the situation. The song is a terrible scream, and the two assassins fall to the stage and appear dead. The boy in red closes the computer and says that the flashback is over. The King stands and says, “I do not believe you,” and then kills the boy in red. All quickly gather at center stage and say, “Thank you,” and bow. [Special Note: The play is based on a recent and popular Jet Li movie about the warring states period in Chinese History. After the competition, I was asked for advice on how to change the play to make it more about the Olympics. It was explained that this group had been asked to change the play before the next round of competition in two weeks.]

Play Seven: [No English title in the program]

Grade Level: High School

The play begins with two students dressed as trees, and one dressed as a river. A white bunny then hops across the stage. There are some papers and wrappers on the stage. The bunny begins a conversation about pollution with the trees. After a long discussion (much of it was difficult to hear because of the reoccurring audio malfunctions), the bunny screams, “Oh no, a sand storm.” The characters are “blown” off stage and a lot of crumpled paper is thrown onto the stage as very dramatic music plays in the background. The characters return to the stage in slightly different costumes. The bunny is now gray, the river has changed (see picture) and the trees look less healthy. Again there is a discussion, and phrases such as “global warming” and “soil erosion” are mentioned in the conversation. The group blames humans for the problems and gets angry, leaving the stage. A narrator explains that humans are now “suffering because of pollution and must learn.” Students dressed in casual clothing take the stage and pick up the trash. The animal, river and trees return again looking clean and happy. They sing a song and then bow.

Other Plays – Common Themes:

There were many more plays, but it is too large a task for me to summarize all of them. The most common occurrence, other than singing and dancing routines, was the inclusion of the five Olympic mascots or “Friendlies” in the plot of the plays. Also, there were 12 different plays that included a competition to determine some kind of prize – either a trip to the Olympics, or a chance to become a volunteer. Three of the plays included characters from the classic novel The Journey West.

Final Note: With less than 24 hour notice, Courtney and I were informed that we would be singing during one of the intermissions. Since we are both Red Sox fans, I got my hands on a karaoke version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” As an ethnographer, I cannot say that we performed well, but the audience did clap.

This week I have tried to keep my conclusions out of the blog to provide space for more of your comments and discussion. Please post! It would be especially insightful if you could make connections with currents issues and/or your prior knowledge of China.