Monthly Archives: December 2014

twenty-fourteen

In twenty-fourteen, I: Got waylaid in Denver after snow and de-icing delays on a flight from Washington to Burbank, California.  Shared Sunset Rolls and Fire Dragon Rolls, Sapporo and warm saké, with my little sister Stephanie, and then met The Invisible Woman in LA.  On foggy Venice Beach, wandered past muscle men, tattoo parlors, surfboards and funnel cakes, and contemplated the medical marijuana advertised for sale.  Caught glimpses of adorable houses, with secret patios and lazy cats, on a stroll through the Venice Walk-Streets.  Went window shopping on Abbott Kinney Boulevard.  Drove six hours to San Francisco from LA through a parched California landscape to meet my friend Jayne. Laughed at the antics of harbor seals at Fisherman’s Wharf and met Monarch butterflies that looked like clusters of densely packed brown leaves at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Monterey. Drove 17-Mile-Drive at Pebble Beach.  Sampled some wine on the Silverado Trail.  Saw the iconic cloud-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco from the deck of the Sausalito Ferry. Laughed at the antics of sea lions at Pier 39.  On the way back to LA, vicariously lived the high life at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.  Dropped by Old Mission Santa Barbara, walked through fan palms and California chaparral at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and ate fish tacos on Stearns Wharf.  Visited the garden at Mission Buenaventura in Ventura.  Met Rosie of wandering rose and listened to the reverberations of classic rock at Bob’s Big Boy‘s classic car show.  Was inspired by a Poets & Writers LIVE! event in Los Angeles, where I embarrassed myself in front of Chinese writer Da Chen (My Last Empress) when he asked me the for the title of my book and a business card (I had neither).  Had cocktails at the Brig and ate dinner out of a food truck on Abbott Kinney.  Took a hike with Rosie around Corral Canyon in Malibu and ate more fish tacos at Malibu Seafood.  Left behind sunny California to head back to icy Virginia (nomad, interrupted).

Click on any of the pictures below for a full-sized slide show.

Saw tundra swans and parchment-like leaves dangling like wind-chimes on American beeches at Mason Neck State Park. Was inspired by National Geographic’s 2013 Travelers of the Year.  Saw seagulls walking on water at ice-encased Annapolis Harbor.  Learned 20 things about Storytelling Photography from National Geographic photographers Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow.  Chased freight trains and photos along the CSX Main Line at Henryton, Maryland.  Suffered through snowstorm after snowstorm in Northern Virginia, and then searched for spring at Green Spring Gardens.  Heard the thundering roar of Great Falls while strolling with Alex, Bailey and Mike along the Patowmack Canal.  Took a photowalk through the hardscrabble part of Baltimore.  Found the gravesite of the patentee of the Ouija Board at Green Mount Cemetery.  Walked Richmond’s Monument Avenue 10k in the rain with my daughter Sarah.  Drifted with cherry blossoms on the Tidal Basin in D.C.  Said “ahoy, matey!” to pirates at the Privateer Festival in Baltimore.  crisscrossed flowing streams & waterfalls at White Oak Canyon.  Stayed overnight at a sleep clinic to test for sleep apnea. Wandered through flowering trees at the Virginia Arboretum.  Was charmed by wisteria at Dumbarton Oaks.  Finally found spring, after a long and grueling winter, at Meadowlark Gardens.  Celebrated Sarah’s 30th birthday in Richmond by sipping wine with the whole family amidst Chihuly’s Red Reeds at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, topped off by a feast at Bacchus.  Cloistered myself at the Franciscan Monastery. Sampled wine and cheese with the family at Doukenie Winery.  Won prizes in photography competitions through Vienna Photographic Society and had my Hot air balloons over Cappadocia photo featured by National Geographic on Instagram.  Finished the third draft of my novel, Scattering Dreams of Stars, but never got around to sending out query letters.  Applied for 40 jobs stateside and didn’t get anything.  Applied for jobs in China and got an offer from Sino-Canadian International College of Guangxi University in Nanning.  Went on safari with sculptures of metal animals in the “American Metal” exhibit at the Corcoran in its last days.  Was awed by the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Opened my heart to water lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.  Worked on joining hearts with Mike at Eastern Market in D.C. Saw “Words & Letters” made into art at the Athenaeum.  Felt general malaise at a Civil War Encampment at Sully Plantation. (nomad, interrupted).

Searched in vain for a happy 4th of July, as both my mother-in-law and my father were admitted to the hospital; my father’s problem was corrected without complications, but my 88-year-old mother-in-law’s health went into decline and she went into hospice care in early July.  Went with Alex on a road trip to New Hampshire, where we stayed in a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee, seeking a reprieve from Shirley’s illness and our sadness.  Drove the Kancamagus Highway through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, topped by a hike at the Flume Gorge. Stopped to buy a bird nest ornament in a garden shop in charming Woodstock, Vermont, where I was mistaken for Alex’s girlfriend (ha!). Admired painted “meeses” and mountain lions in Bennington, and scrambled over rocks at Kaaterskill Falls in New York.  Returned home to watch helplessly as my mother-in-law continued to decline; she passed away on July 17.  Went in search of light-crazed sunflowers in memory of Shirley, who loved gardening.  Visited the George Washington Masonic National Memorial as we waited for Shirley’s memorial service, which was on Thursday, July 25.   Took our 12 1/2-year-old border collie, Bailey, to the vet when he got sick the day after Shirley’s memorial service; he died the next day, sadly, at the human age of 88.  Searched for summer, and solace, at Solomons, Maryland, where empty boats conversed in a language of their own, groaning, clanking, lamenting and whining.  Hiked at Calvert Cliffs State Park where a kid told me: “My dad says your name is Stranger.”  Dropped off my passport at the Chinese embassy to get my work visa, and while in D.C., stopped in unannounced at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral for a brief tour in darkness. Came full circle and revisited summer at Meadowlark Gardens, as I did when I first arrived back in Virginia from Oman (nomad, interrupted).

Shirley and Bailey: both left us in July

Shirley and Bailey: both left us in July

Sampled rum & grapefruit juice with Mike at Mango’s upon our arrival in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Was coated like a sugar cookie by a maelstrom of sand at Ocean Park.  Savored every bite of mofongo — mashed plantains — at Raices in Old San Juan.  Had a close encounter with the Baño Nazi on Paseo de la Princessa.  Took a self-guided walking tour through colorful Old San Juan, admiring views of Bahia de San Juan along the periphery of El Morro.  Came face-to-face with an iguana at Castillo de San Cristobal and together we enjoyed views of the Atlantic.  Climbed into a cloud forest on the Mt. Britton Trail at El Yunque rain forest.  Ate fabulous Caribbean Benedicts at El Convento.  Sought shelter from the rain at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.  Visited the “ghost town” of Aguirre in the south of the island.  Was disappointed at Hacienda Buena Vista to see only the historical buildings and not any actual coffee plants.  Got roared at by painted lions at Ponce and took pictures of the historic firehouse and famous landmark, Parque de Bombas.  Looked in vain for 007 (“Bond, James Bond”) and Jodi Foster at the Arecibo Observatory, the setting for Goldeneye & Contact.  Enjoyed a day at the Ocean Park Beach and gorgeous sunset at El Morro before returning home to Washington. Continued to work with Mike on our reconciliation after our seven-year separation and felt good enough about it to go abroad again.  Spent the next two weeks getting ready to move to China.  Left the U.S. on August 30 (notes from north america).

Arrived in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on September 1 and was installed in a gritty apartment with a view over a lotus pond.  Spent the first couple of weeks in Nanning getting a phone, internet, a medical exam, and the visa.  Took a walk with another new teacher, Caleb, on Qing Xiu Shan in dreadful heat & humidity, where we saw koi in Sky Pond and a 1350-year-old Cycas King in the Cycad Garden.  Climbed to the top of Longing Tower where we saw views of Nanning and the Yongjiang River.  Encountered communication problems when haggling in a Chinese market.  Experienced the fringes of Typhoon Kalmaegi as it brushed past Nanning. Spent a frustrating day trying to figure out how to buy train tickets to Guilin.  Finally acquired a bicycle after much rigmarole and rode to Nanning Zoo, where I watched Chinese visitors feeding junk food to the animals.  Began fall semester on September 22.  Encountered students with funny English names: Maleah, Kitty, Yuki, Albert, Hebe, Lancy, Shally, Amber, Azura, Nyako, Spring, and best of all: Yoyo, Echo, Coco, Smoothies and Evita.  Heard tell of other teachers’ students: Biscuit, Yogurt and Potato.  Was flummoxed when trying to find simple household products such as shampoo, conditioner and floor cleaner at Nan Bai Supermarket.  Learned how to say Xièxiè (thank you), Ní hǎo (hello), and Wǒ yào yīgè daizi (I want one bag).

Overcame numerous communication problems and made it to Yangshuo for the National Holiday.  Took a motorized bamboo raft with hundreds of other Chinese tourists down the Li River to Xingping, the scene of the picture on China’s 20 yuan bill.  Strolled around Yangshuo and Green Lotus Hill, where I was surrounded by magical karst formations.  Met Audrey, the niece of an elementary school classmate of mine, at Demo Tiki Bar and then ate Thai food together, accompanied by lots of wine, at Rock-n-Grill.  Bicycled with Audrey through the Yangshuo countryside, where we took an almost-skinny-dip in the Yulong River.  Ate a late lunch at a Passion Fruit Leisure Farm.  Went on a motorbike tour through kumquat orchards to Xianggang Hill, where we saw karst formations with names like Nine Horse Fresco Hill, Lad Worships Goddess, and Grandpa Watching Apple.  Traipsed through the Seven Star Tea Plantation.  Took my own private bamboo boat ride down the Yulong River.  Returned to Nanning, where I began teaching an English Interest Course on Storytelling Photography.  Got hooked on Mad Men and watched all the seasons.  Walked through artistic trellises at the Guangxi Medicinal Plant Garden.  Encountered crazy communication problems on a trip to see Detian Waterfall on the Sino-Vietnamese border.  Straddled the border of China and Vietnam in a bamboo boat and was sprayed by the Ban Gioc-Detian Waterfall on my 59th birthday.  Received a cake for my birthday from the Student Union; I happily shared it with some of my colleagues, cherry tomato toppings and all.

Went to a student-teacher Halloween party on a sweltering night where everyone was sweating in their costumes.  Visited the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, where I saw excellent exhibits on Guangxi’s twelve indigenous ethnic groups.  Ventured to Nanning People’s Park where hordes of Chinese people were dancing, singing, and playing traditional instruments. Watched all 8 episodes of True Detective and began to watch Breaking Bad.  Took a trip to Ping’An, where a Zhuang guide led me on a hike to see Nine Dragons and Five Tigers and a Yao long-haired woman.  Posed in traditional costume at Seven Stars with Moon.  Took a 5-hour hike alone to the Longji Rice Terraces, where I got lost numerous times.  Spent an afternoon of disillusionment at Elephant Hill Park in Guilin.  Treated myself to a whole body massage, a foot massage and pedicure in Guilin to try to alleviate my four days of sickness while traveling.

Encountered a styrofoam lady on the way to Wal-Mart.  Watched a Chinese love story with English subtitles, Fleet of Time, that shed some light on the lives of my college students. Watched all 10 episodes of Fargo Survived another challenging Chinese bus ride to Yangmei Ancient Village. Spent Christmas day alone wandering downtown Nanning, sipping a Toffee Nut Latte at Starbucks, watching The Taking of Tiger Mountain at Wanda Cinema, and finally Skyping with my family in Virginia.  Went to a Christmas party arranged by my students, where I attempted to make proper dumplings, played and won a REAL game of Chinese checkers, and sang karaoke.  Went to a free acrobatics show in Nanning.

Happy New Year!  May all your dreams come true in twenty-fifteen. 🙂

Related posts:
twenty-thirteen
weekly photo challenge: my 2012 in pictures

Categories: 2014, Abbott Kinney Boulevard, Aguirre, Alexandria, Americas, Annapolis, Arecibo Observatory, Asia, Burbank, California, Calvert Cliffs State Park, Cherry Blossom Festival, China, Colorado, D.C., Daxin, Denver, Detian Waterfall, Dumbarton Oaks, El Yunque National Forest, Expat life, Golden Gate Bridge, Great Falls Park, Guangxi Medicinal Plant Garden, Guangxi Museum of Nationalities, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Guilin, Hearst Castle, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Longji Ancient Village, Longji Rice Terraces, Longsheng County, Los Angeles, Malibu, Maryland, Monterey, Nanning, New Hampshire, New Year's Day, New Year's Eve, New York, Old San Juan, Photography, Ping'An Village, Poets & Writers LIVE!, Ponce, Puerto Rico, Qing Xiu Shan, Reseda, Richmond, San Francisco, San Simeon, Santa Barbara, Sausalito, Seven Star Tea Plantation, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Sino-Vietnamese border, Solomons, Travel, United States of America, Venice, Venice Beach, Venice walk-streets, Ventura, Vermont, Vienna, Virginia, White Oak Canyon, Wine Country, Xianggong Hill, Xingping, Yangmei Ancient Town, Yangshuo, Yulong River | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

a year-end work retreat

Tuesday, December 30: This afternoon, the teachers and administration from SCIC were required to attend a working “retreat.”  To me the words “retreat” and “work” don’t really go together, so I was glad it actually turned out not to be too demanding.  We ate some snacks and drank some tea and listened to a presentation on learning theories.  The venue was quite a lovely place.

the venue

the venue

After the lecture, we walked over to the dining hall, where we found some pretty walkways and buildings.  Richard asked if I’d like him to take a picture of me.  It was nice of him to ask, because I don’t usually like to ask people to take pictures of me.  He said he always finds it frustrating when he travels that he never gets any pictures of himself to prove that he was actually at a place.

me at the venue

me at the venue

Some of the younger guys were goofing off and pretending to do some Kung Fu fighting.

kung fu fighting

kung fu fighting

I did a mingle activity (an activity which I often do with my students), where I mingled and took shots of my colleagues.

After the lecture, we sat down to the typical Chinese style dinner served on a lazy Susan.  I couldn’t eat much of it because the meat in every dish looked typically Chinese, meaning it was still attached to the bone, with gristle and fat and skin still attached.  I ate a few bits, but mostly I just sampled some of the many bottles of wine that were there for our enjoyment. 🙂

I had some fun conversations with the people at our table.  I found out, much to my astonishment, that Geoff, shown below, taught for a year in Saudi Arabia.  We talked a lot about that culture and our experiences in the Gulf.  I couldn’t understand how, though we’ve worked a whole semester together, he never once mentioned until tonight that he worked in Saudi Arabia; everyone here knows I worked two years in Oman, so I would have thought he might mention his work in that region.  It’s always interesting what you find out about people once their tongues are loosened a bit by wine.

Geoff, Gavin and Colton

Geoff, Gavin and Colton

It was really a fun retreat and a great bonding experience for the teachers.  As none of us keep office hours, we don’t often have a chance to interact with each other.  A lively evening all around. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese food, Expat life, Guangxi University, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Teaching English as a Second Language | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2014 in review: wordpress stats

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,000 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Categories: Travel | 3 Comments

an acrobatics & dance show in nanning

Saturday, December 27:  This evening I was invited by a couple of my colleagues to an acrobatics & dance show in Nanning.  A Chinese doctor friend of Eddie’s, Dr. Pan (who does Chinese traditional medicine such as acupuncture), purportedly had four free tickets, so I was invited after a long line of invitees declined the invitation.  Oh well, it was a fun evening, so I’m glad all those other people opted out!

It turned out Dr. Pan knew the manager of the theater and didn’t really have any tickets at all.  When we arrived at the venue, Dr. Pan called the manager, and he escorted us in through the stage door and up into the balcony.

I had seen a professional acrobatics extravaganza when I was in Beijing in 2010, so I didn’t expect much here in Nanning.  Even though the venue itself was nothing special (the theater was cold and rather decrepit), the actual performance — the acrobatics, the music, the dancing, the costumes, and the stage sets — were fabulous.   Our seats were on a balcony in the back and I tried to take pictures with my iPhone but most of them were awful.  In retrospect, I should have brought my Olympus PEN, but I’m not sure with the low light and our distance from the stage that they would have turned out better.

Here are just a few shots of our evening.  I apologize for the poor quality of the images!

And here’s me after the show in front of the billboard.

me in front of the poster for the acrobatics show in Nanning

me in front of the poster for the acrobatics show in Nanning

I’ve determined after two such shows that the Chinese are really amazing at acrobatics!! 🙂

Categories: Acrobatics, Asia, China, Entertainment, Expat life, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Nanning | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

a chinese-style christmas party

Friday, December 26: This afternoon, I went to a Christmas party that ramped up my festive spirit for the holidays.  The party was thrown by the students from my ORIGINAL 1408 class (to whom I taught Writing and Speaking & Listening BEFORE the midterm exams that reshuffled the students into different classes).  I was utterly astonished by the amount of planning, coordination and work that went into this party.

The venue: First, the students rented this room in an apartment building.  I guess it must be a room that is rented out to college students a lot, because it was all equipped with a kitchen and cooking stuff, a mahjong table, a singing room, a living room, and a dining area.

So Young Bar

So Young Bar

The organizers: As far as I could tell, the planners behind this event were Yuki, Albert, Robin and Eva.  They are some of the brightest students in my class, and are usually the driving force behind most discussions in class, as well as any outside activities.  The first person I saw when I was ushered into the kitchen was Albert, chop-chopping away.  You can see the bowl of ground pork to be stuffed into the dumplings.

Albert chopping away in the kitchen

Albert chopping away in the kitchen

Yuki is probably the best student in my class as far as English-speaking ability.  I usually go to her when I have questions about anything in China.  I believe she and Robin were the driving forces, and the ones who organized the room rental, food purchases, cooking, and the games.

Yuki

Yuki

Eva and Robin are also excellent students.  Robin says she loves to cook, but the poor girl stayed in the kitchen for the entire party.  She made every kind of dish imaginable.  I mostly ate dumplings, eggs, tofu and vegetables.  I had told them before the party that I really didn’t eat much in the way of meat.  However, that didn’t stop Robin from cooking up chicken, some kind of seafood soup, and other foods that I didn’t sample.  An endless array of dishes kept coming out of the kitchen during the entire four hours I was there!

Eva and Robin

Eva and Robin

Dumplings:  The students put me to work right away making dumplings. I was pretty clumsy at this task, and my dumplings were ugly and misshapen little things.

The students try to teach me to make dumplings but I'm afraid they're not very successful

The students try to teach me to make dumplings but I’m afraid they weren’t very successful

the art of making dumplings

the art of making dumplings

Games:  I saw a game that looked similar to our Monopoly, but no one seemed to be playing it.  Someone was always at the “chess” table, and a big crowd was playing mahjong in one rom for the duration.  Most of the players were boys.  I played a game of the big bad wolf, but I can’t say I ever really understood what we were doing.  I also played a game of Chinese checkers, and I learned the Chinese rule that you can jump not just single jumps: >X>X>X, but you can also jump equal spaces on each side of your opponent’s marbles, as long as you don’t go into one of the star “territories:” >>X>>X>>X.  Or you can combine single and double jumps in one move.  I really had to think hard about this, as I wasn’t used to this rule, but despite my slowness and many missed moves, I still managed to beat Eric, my opponent. Now I know how to play REAL Chinese checkers.

Singing:  I loved the Korean tradition of noraebang, or singing karaoke in a special room.  I spent many nights in Korea singing and drinking the night away.  I did this not only with ex-pat friends, but also with my Korean colleagues at least once a month, when we went out for a staff dinner and noraebang.

In China, they have similar singing rooms but they’re called KTVs. I’ve never yet been to one, but I told my students I’d really love it if we all went there one night.  They said it’s very expensive, that they don’t drink when there, and that they often go there to play games rather than to sing.  They sound a lot different from Korean noraebangs.  At today’s party, there was a karaoke machine and the students were singing away. I love this activity, and I was right there with them when I knew the songs.  Leo sang nearly every song, but he preferred Chinese songs, which were lovely.  He and Albert and Sherry, and eventually Stone, sang the afternoon away in both English and Chinese.  To me this was the most enjoyable part of the party.  I think singing brings people together in ways that nothing else can.

I wish I could download some of the videos I took of them singing, but I can’t ever seem to download videos to YouTube here in China.  YouTube is blocked in China, but I can usually get on it to watch videos through the VPN.  So I think it must be my slow internet connection that makes it impossible.

Students: Throughout the day, I walked around taking random shots of the students.  Before I left, I went into every room and took a group shot.  Here is my original class 1408, which has changed since midterms.  However, the new students who joined our class after midterms weren’t invited (that made me sad, but it was the students’ party and they did it their way).  In addition, the old students, who left my class for either the highest or the lowest level classes after midterms, attended.  The original class will always have a special bond, I think, and no mandatory separation will make them part ways.

Front L: Eva, Kitty, Barbara Back L to R: Grace, Vivian, Vivi, Nico, JoJo, Helen, Fiona, Sherry Front R: Albert, Estelle, Stone

Front L: Eva, Kitty, Barbara
Back L to R: Grace, Vivian, Vivi, Nico, JoJo, Helen, Fiona, Sherry
Front R: Albert, Estelle, Stone

The students asked me how the university in China differed from universities in the U.S.  I told them there were many things different about teaching English in a foreign country and universities in the U.S.  What I didn’t tell them is that this party was totally different than a party you’d find on an American university campus.  First, there was no alcohol at this party.  Even though I’ve heard China has a big drinking culture, I have yet to witness that firsthand.  There was absolutely no alcohol of any kind at this party.  Also, I can’t imagine a college fraternity party where students would cook such a huge amount of food during a party.  It would all be catered or hired out.  Also, rather than playing games and singing karaoke, there would be loud music, dancing, and mingling, and who knows what other kinds of activities.  This party was very sedate, except for the boisterous game of mahjong that involved a lot of shouting and laughing!

Even though my Christmas day was awfully lonely, I did talk on Skype twice to Mike and the boys.  This party saved the holiday for me here in China.  It was really a lovely time of bonding with my students. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, Christmas, ESL Teacher, Expat life, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Holidays, Nanning, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Teaching English as a Second Language | Tags: , , , , , , | 19 Comments

merry christmas from nanning!

Thursday, December 25:  I want to wish all my blogging & other friends, and of course my family, a wondrous and happy Christmas day from China!  Although Christmas isn’t officially celebrated here, I do find the Christmas spirit is alive and well.  I have found bits and pieces of Christmas everywhere, but especially in my Chinese students, who are going out of their way to create a special celebration for our entire class tomorrow.

Santa and his tree and elves

Santa and his tree and elves

It is now Christmas night and though I had the day off from work, I have to admit that it’s been a lonely and somewhat depressing day.  I have been telling myself all day that it’s just like any other day, so I shouldn’t let it get me down.  I am alone here in China most of the time, but somehow the loneliness seems more expansive, more all-encompassing on the holiday.  I do have some friends here, but it seems those “friends” don’t consider me enough of a friend to want to spend time with me on a holiday.  Oh well, truth be told, I’m not really drawn to spend a special holiday such as Christmas with them either.

Anyway, nothing can match my Christmas holidays at home in Virginia (weekly photo challenge: joy {christmas day}) or the fabulous Christmas I had in Oman in 2011: a holly jolly christmas in nizwa.

Although I generally like living abroad, it’s always most difficult during the holidays.  I think next year I must make sure to be home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Christmas is, of course, the time to be home — in heart as well as body. ~ Garry Moore

Mike has been Skyping with me every day or two, knowing how lonely I feel.  Today, I got a sad email from my dearest friend in the U.S.; she is encountering some tough challenges in her life that have become more acute over the holiday.  These things remind me that I care much more about her, and of course my family, than I do about anybody here.  Not only that, but I’ve gotten some lovely messages from blogger friends and my old friends in Oman, and those have more meaning to me than anything anyone here does or doesn’t do.

Now, the essence, the very spirit of Christmas is that we first make-believe a thing is so, and lo, it presently turns out to be so.  ~  Stephen Leacock

hearts for Christmas?  Hmmm.  I thought that was Valentine's Day

hearts for Christmas? Hmmm. I thought that was Valentine’s Day.

My remaining time here is short.  I’m getting increasingly tired of close-minded people who have only been in China, and believe it’s the be-all and end-all of existence.  When I worked in Oman, I met people who had worked all over the world ~ the same in Korea. Those people seem so much more worldly and open-minded.  But here, people are firmly entrenched in China, and they often can’t see further than their own backyard.

streets of downtown Nanning

streets of downtown Nanning

downtown Nanning

downtown Nanning

I have been expecting a Christmas box from Mike, but sadly it didn’t arrive today.  No matter.  I suppose it will get here eventually.

Mail your packages early so the post office can lose them in time for Christmas.  ~ Johnny Carson

I determined that I wouldn’t let my fellow expats get to me, so I took a bus to downtown Nanning, where I walked around on the pedestrian shopping streets.  I sat at Starbucks for a while, sipping on a Toffee Nut Latte and savoring a ham and cheese croissant.  While sitting there, I noticed the Wanda Cinema across the way.  I went in search of a movie, as I’ve always loved watching movies on Christmas night.  There were no English movies showing, but there were two Chinese movies with English subtitles showing.  The one that happened to start at around 3:00, when I happened to be there, was The Taking of Tiger Mountain, a 3D Chinese-Hong Kong epic action film.  I didn’t realize it was 3D until I handed over my ticket and they handed me the special glasses.  I don’t normally like 3D movies, but this one wasn’t bad and was quite entertaining.

The holiday is coming to a close, but Mike and the boys will Skype me soon, on their Christmas morning.  I thank the special people who sent special greetings directly to me, especially Jo, Jayne, Dai, and Sandy.  I also thank Tahira for remembering our special times together in Oman, where we shared many special and irreplaceable memories.

downtown Nanning

downtown Nanning

Santa and gingerbread houses

Santa and gingerbread houses

Love and peace to you all. 🙂

Categories: Asia, Chaoyang Lu, China, Christmas, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Holidays, Nanning | Tags: , , , | 25 Comments

yangmei ancient town ~ “town of prosperity”

Saturday, December 13:  Chinese bus journeys test my patience.  In order to get through them, I simply CANNOT allow myself to think about them in advance.  When I know I’m going to make a long bus trip, I have to think of the entire trip as simply putting one foot in front of the other.  I walk here. I jump on a bus. I sit. I get off the bus. I walk. I get on another bus. I sit on the bus. I get off the bus.  Finally, when it’s time to come home, I get back on the bus and repeat the whole thing in reverse.  But.  I can only allow myself to think of one small step at a time, otherwise I’ll freak myself out. I’ll never leave the university campus.

Today, I follow a map that one of my colleagues drew for me.  The map is to an off-the-beaten-path bus station which has buses directly to Yangmei Ancient Town. I know at exactly which bus stop I should get off, IF I’m on the #33 bus.  However, I’m not on the #33 bus, because at the bus stop in front of the university main gate, the #8 bus comes first and I know the #8 bus goes to Nanning Railway Station.  The aforementioned bus station is a short walk from the railway station, so I just need to get off the #8 close to the railway station.

The #8 bus stops directly at the railway station, but I make the wrong decision to stay on until the next stop, hoping it will be closer to the destined bus station.  Wrong.  I sit impatiently chomping at the bits as the bus drives a convoluted path AWAY from my destination and doesn’t stop again for quite a distance.  When I finally am able to get off, I have to find my way back to the railway station and then to the bus station. Not exactly an efficient use of my time.

I finally find the bus station at No. 198 Huaqiang Lu at about 9:45.  I’m told the bus leaves at 10:10 and costs 15 yuan.  I take a bathroom break (where one must squat in a doorless, waist-high cubicle into a trough with running water ~ absolutely disgusting!) and hop on the bus.

The TV screen at the front of the bus is playing a Chinese version of MTV.  I actually like it as the music is quite good and I love looking at the handsome and beautiful Chinese singers.  I think the bus trip won’t be so bad if this music is playing for the whole trip. But as always seems to be the case, the driver puts on some silly movie which has Chinese subtitles, as if the Chinese need subtitles in their own language!

The bus seems empty at first; I always foolishly get my hopes up that I’ll have two seats to myself, but at the last-minute people always come out of nowhere and hop on the bus, carrying all manner of packages, which they stuff into the overhead bins. Not only that, but once the bus gets underway, it makes about a thousand stops to pick up everybody who is standing along the road. Today, the lady on the bus who helps the driver by collecting money, etc., distributes a stack of plastic stools in the aisle for all the random people who we pick up along the way. I’ve never seen this on previous bus trips.

We drive in what seems like slow motion through Nanning. When we get outside the city, we lumber along at the slowest imaginable pace, following and eventually passing three-wheeled vehicles, tortoise-like trucks, motorbikes, and other buses on a potholed and dusty road.  The larger roads dwindle onto increasingly narrow and more derelict roads.  We bump and grind through what I later realize is the highlight of the trip, the green and neatly manicured farmland.

Yangmei Ancient Town is about 30 miles outside Nanning City Center, which should be a half-hour-drive under normal circumstances.  But of course nothing in China is normal, at least not to the Western way of thinking.  I’ve been told the bus ride is 1 1/2 hours, but I don’t want to believe it.  I continue to deceive myself until, exactly 1 1/2 hours later, we arrive at our destination.

I ask the bus driver what time the bus goes back to Nanning and she puts up four fingers.  It’s 11:40 now, and I hope that the town will be enough to keep my interest for over four hours. As I’m walking into town, I’m thinking that it neither looks all that ancient nor interesting.

Entering Yangmei Ancient Village

Entering Yangmei Ancient Village

Located in the lower reaches of the Zuojiang River, Yangmei Ancient Town is the town in Guangxi with the best preserved ancient architecture of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Founded in the Song Dynasty (970-1279) by four families, Luo, Liu, Lu and Lee, the ancient town of Yangmei was firstly named as Baihua (literally all sorts of flowers) Village because of the blooming flowers of all sorts. Later, due to the wars, people moved to the village from various regions. Covering 6.5 square kilometers, Yangmei Ancient Town reached its prime in the Qing Dynasty as an important collecting and distributing center within the area as well as a key port along Yong River. However, in the later days of the dynasty, it became quiet because of the decline of water transport in the region (Visit our China: Yangmei Ancient Town).

Surviving for hundreds of years, it has been reputed as a town of prosperity, hence the name “Yangmei.”

a little paved path off the main street

a little paved path off the main street

The first historical building I encounter is the Wu Die Tang Hotel.  According to a placard at the hotel (exact words): It was founded in the Jiaqing period of Qing dynasty with a history more than 200 years.  The hall is a traditional five gate house built with brick and tiles.  As the owner was honest and kind-hearted, keen of doing fermented soya beans, and his fermented soya beans was black and nice.  He also paid attention to his reputation and never gave short weight, so his business became more and more prosperous.  This is why Yangmei fermented soya beans become so famous all over the country.

The hall has been developed into a hotel.  Many poets and writers met in the hall to enjoy the lavish wine, dishes and appreciate to old building style and cultural charm.

After dropping in at the hotel, I head down Jinma Street toward the Ancient Gate and the Street of Delicacies.

Villager selling goods on Jinma Street

Villager selling goods on Jinma Street

I go through the Ancient Gate and down to the river, passing all these vendor stalls along the way.

Goods for sale near the Ancient Gate

Goods for sale near the Ancient Gate

The little crabs look like an interesting snack, and I would try them if I knew that they didn’t use recycled oil.  With all the stomach problems I have in China, I’m not willing to take a gamble on these.

Snack food

Snack food

I see some tourist boats docked along the shore.  Apparently there are a lot of rock features you can see on the boat ride, but to be honest, none of them seem interesting enough to warrant me spending the money.

Boats on the Yongjiang River

Boats on the Yongjiang River

Boats on the river

Boats on the river

From the river side, I can see the Ancient Gate. In retrospect, I think this is the most “ancient”-looking thing in the city.

The Ancient Gate

The Ancient Gate

Some of the houses and gardens are a little unkempt, but I’m surprised that all the walkways through the village are neatly swept.

Villager's garden

Villager’s garden

houses in the village

houses in the village

laundry will always find its place in the sun

laundry will always find its place in the sun

a peek into someone's yard

a peek into someone’s yard

roads through the village

roads through the village

There are big bowls of some fermented smelling vegetables, similar in looks and smell to Korean kimchi, which vendors are dishing out for Chinese tourists.  Jars of fermented looking foods sit on tables and shelves, enticing visitors.  I really have no idea what they are, but maybe they’re the fermented soya beans that Yangmei is famous for.

maybe these are the fermented soya?

maybe these are the fermented soya?

I can never resist taking pictures of the transport contraptions in China.  I’m endlessly fascinated by how people create just the right vehicle for their needs.

Three-wheeled contraption

Three-wheeled contraption

I find some corn and grains drying out in the scant sunlight.

drying vegetables and grains

drying vegetables and grains

As well as a pretty little bridge.  The lotus pond probably looks lovely in the spring.

Bridge over a pond

Bridge over a pond

I see this woman walking on the path, with a little gaggle of chickens following behind her.  After they all leave the path, I see a rat scamper furtively across the path.  This is the second rat I’ve seen in China this week.  Every time I see one, I freak out!

villager followed by chickens

villager followed by chickens

The ladies of the village set up shop easily with just a stool and some baskets.

Village women

Village women

I find another pretty gate with more of the large jars that are scattered throughout the village.

a gate along Jinma Street

a gate along Jinma Street

I walk into this building, the doors of which are wide open, but I realize when I step inside that it’s someone’s home.  Yikes!

I think this might be someone's house

I think this might be someone’s house

Again, I pass more shopkeepers with their baskets and stools.

vegetable market

vegetable market

Fruits for sale

Fruits for sale

At the south end of Jinma Street, I find the gate of Yangmei Ancient Town.  This gate doesn’t look as ancient as the one at the north end.

The Gate of Yangmei Ancient Town

The Gate of Yangmei Ancient Town

There’s some farmland at this end of the town.

Farmland in the village

Farmland in the village

And of course, commerce as usual.

commerce, as always

commerce, as always

These little carts seem lost and forlorn without tourists in them.  I do pass one woman pulling such a cart filled with children and adults.  The children all yell out “Hello!” to me when they pass by.

vehicles resting

vehicles resting

I like the roof tiles on the old buildings, and the corn stalks leaning against the weathered brick.

old buildings

old buildings

grasses

grasses

As I walk through the town, I’m becoming increasingly disappointed.  As a photographer, I’m looking for interesting things to photograph.  But the light is so bad, and the houses so drab and gray or brown, I start to feel a little depressed.  I try to think what it is about China that makes my interest in photography wane.  And I’ve decided there are three things.  One is the light.  The skies are almost always hazy and overcast; even on a sunny day, there is a gray haze in the air.  I can’t help but think about the amazing light I’ve encountered in my travels, especially in Oman, Jordan, Greece, Spain and Portugal; even in Korea the light was generally good.

The second thing I dislike is the general unkemptness.  There seems to always be some kind of construction going on, and construction debris is always scattered about in alleyways and on sidewalks and roadsides.

old buildings

old buildings

The third thing is something that comes to mind from an essay I read with my students this week.  In the essay, “The Struggle to Be an All-American Girl,” Elizabeth Wong tells of her painful experiences growing up in the bicultural atmosphere of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.  At one point, she describes her Chinese grandmother, who is an embarrassment to her: “Her humor was raunchy, her Chinese rhythmless, patternless. It was quick, it was loud, it was unbeautiful.  It was not like the quiet, lilting romance of French or the gentle refinement of the American South.  Chinese sounded pedestrian.  Public.”

there's always some kind of construction going on

there’s always some kind of construction going on

The other day, I was talking with a colleague of mine from London.  Though he’s been in China for many years, and will probably continue to stay for at least several more, he says what he misses most here in China is a certain sense of refinement.  Much like Elizabeth Wong’s description of her grandmother’s Chinese, I find too that China lacks a sense of refinement.  The architecture is sturdy and functional, but “unbeautiful.”  It’s not the decay or the peeling paint that is bothersome, because I find such decay charming in European cities.  For example, buildings in Portugal often have peeling paint or chunks of concrete gouged out of their walls, but because of their beautiful Spanish architecture, and the old tiles that are on facades, the decay becomes charming.  Here the decay is on charmless buildings, so the decay is not beautiful.

village children

village children

I hope I can come to appreciate what China is, as it has much that is fabulous, especially its natural landscapes and its generally kind people.

old homes

old homes

jars for fermenting?

jars for fermenting?

peeking through another doorway

peeking through another doorway

pond

pond

I’m walking down a street called Yong’an Street and I’ve bought a tourist map, and I am looking for the Temple of Confucius.  I see this building below and I think it must be the Temple.  The door is open and no one is inside.  I step inside and take some pictures. I walk out on the landing, and when I see a cart being pulled by an ox (or is it a water buffalo?), I step back into the “temple” and snap a picture out the doorway.

beast of burden stride-by

beast of burden stride-by

Later I see a group of ladies sitting around on stools chattering away.  I point to the Confucius Temple on the map.  They point me in the opposite direction to the house I just entered, and I realize I have just walked into someone’s house!  Oh dear.  When I return down this street later, after having found the real Temple of Confucius, I see the doors are closed, probably to keep out foolish tourist intruders!

village homes and pond

village homes and pond

jars and tropical vegetation in the village

jars and tropical vegetation in the village

I finally find the Temple of Confucius.  The lighting inside is horrible, and I find it difficult to get any decent photos.  A man says something to me in Chinese.  I wonder if maybe he’s telling me to give him some money, but he doesn’t insist and I don’t understand, so I continue on my way.

Leaving the Temple of Confucius, I head toward the river and find this beautiful gate.  It’s strange because there are huge red stones scattered about and the gate isn’t even over the road.  There is obviously some huge construction project going on here, but I have no idea what it is.

Multi-layered gate

Multi-layered gate

gate surrounded by reddish stones

gate surrounded by reddish stones

Finally, I come across this little shrine beside the river.

Little shrine near the river

Little shrine near the river

And more jars scattered about inside gateways and beside ponds.

another doorway

another doorway

more jars and pond

more jars and pond

By this time it’s about 1:20 and I’ve had enough.  I’m ready to go back to Nanning, but the bus driver told me the bus wouldn’t return until 4:00.  I feel a sense of desperation that I’ll be stuck here for two and a half more hours.  I do remember reading somewhere that buses return to Nanning at 2:00 and 4:00, so I head back to the bus station in hopes that the information I read is correct.  I find a Chinese man who speaks some English and he tells me the bus will leave between 1:30 and 2:00.  I settle in to wait, determined not to let the bus leave without me.

I finally get on the bus and the same process is repeated, with people appearing out of nowhere to get on at the last-minute, with multiple stops along the way to pick up people along the road, with stools placed in the aisles.  At some point, a Chinese man with a disfiguring birthmark on his face plops down beside me.  He keeps staring at me, so I just turn to look out the window.  I enjoy looking at the beautiful farmland anyway.  At one point, the man reaches over my head and angrily yanks the curtain over the window.  I glare at him and point out the window, telling him that “Pardon me! I’m looking out the window!”  I find his attitude so selfish, especially as he doesn’t occupy the window seat, so that should be my decision.  As he can see I’m upset, he starts speaking in Chinese.  Of course I don’t understand.  However, I can tell by his tone that he’s trying to be conciliatory.  I think he tells me I can open the curtain if I like; but I don’t do it.  I just peek out the curtain.  He then pulls out his wallet and shows me his ID card and a November train ticket from another town to Nanning.  I think he’s trying to make up for his rudeness, and so I become friendly in return to him, although we can’t understand anything the other says.

Finally, I make it make to Nanning, where I forgo the buses and take a taxi back to the campus.  This is one of the shorter trips, near Nanning, that I have on my list.  I probably won’t have time to see much else before I get my holiday toward the end of January, although there may be a few more short outings I can do.

Categories: China, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Travel, Yangmei Ancient Town | Tags: , , , , , , | 24 Comments

random thoughts about life in china

Sunday, December 7: Inspired by Dai of An Englishman’s Life in Kathmandu, I thought I’d write some random thoughts about life in China.  Dai often writes 10 thoughts, but we’ll see if I can come up with that many.

1) My first thought is that today, Pearl Harbor Day in the U.S., is my youngest son Adam’s 22nd birthday.  I really miss him, and I feel awful that I’ve missed too many of his birthdays, being away as I often am.  He used to love for me to make a fruit pizza for him on this day, and I think he’s done without while I’ve been away.  Last year, I was home for his birthday but he wasn’t.  He was traveling across the USA from to California to New Mexico and back to Virginia.  The previous two years he and my other son Alex came to visit me in Oman.  I don’t think they will come to China as they are working to get their own lives in order.  I send all my love to Adam on this, his special day.

My whole family: Mike, Sarah, Alex and Adam, the birthday boy, on the far right

My whole family: Mike, Sarah, Alex and Adam, the birthday boy, on the far right

2) I finally went to see two movies in the last week here in Nanning.  Last week, two teachers and two students and I went to an IMAX theater down the street from the university’s main gate and watched Interstellar, translated into Chinese as “Star-crossed.”  It was a great experience seeing it in that IMAX theater, so up close and personal, and though fantastical, I enjoyed the movie immensely.  And that’s from someone who doesn’t like futuristic or space movies at all.

Fleet of Time

Fleet of Time

Friday night, I tried another movie theater on the third floor of Nan Bai Supermarket.  It’s VERY conveniently located.  Luckily, at that theater, the ticket girl could speak excellent English.  I could see there were all Chinese movies showing, so I asked the girl if any of the movies had English subtitles.  She made a phone call and it took some time to find out, but I found that Fleet of Time was the only movie showing with English subtitles (I have a feeling it is meant to be translated as The Fleeing of Time).  She told me it was a romance.  I wish more Chinese movies had English subtitles; it would be ridiculous for me to try to watch a movie without them as I’d have no clue what was happening. I enjoyed the movie as it was about a group of high school friends and their love interests and it followed them into their university years and beyond into their thirties.  It gave me some new insights into my own students here at the university.

3)  Speaking of the students at SCIC, after midterms were over, our students were reshuffled into different classes.  This caused a huge disruption and led to much unhappiness for students and teachers alike.  The big college entrance examination in China, called the Gaokao, should have already sorted the students from day one, but the administration decided they would “give the students who might not have tested well on the Gaokao another chance to prove themselves.” So all the students were thrown randomly into our classes, with both high and low-level students in each class. At midterm, the students who got exceptionally high marks on midterm exams were moved into the highest level classes, and the students who got exceptionally low marks were moved into the lowest classes.  I teach a mid-level class of freshmen, so I kept the majority of my students.

We had a half a semester to bond with our students.  After midterm we lost many of our students; at the same time we also got new students from other classes. Now there are definite divisions in the class; as all of my new students came from one class, they have bonded, while my students who stayed with me have all bonded with each other and with me.  It’s very difficult to convince the new students I’m okay for them, and that they can blend with my old students. Many students keep running back to their old teachers and their old fellow students at break time and after classes are over.  I feel bad for them.  Even one of my old students, who was moved to another mid-level class for no apparent reason, came begging me to sign a letter allowing her back into my class.  This has happened across the board.  I hope it will all work out okay in the end.

4) My students from my number 8 class (some of whom are pictured above), who are really wonderful students and lively people all around, started texting me one evening this week through WeChat, commonly used in China.  They said they wanted to cook a Chinese dinner for me at Christmas and wanted to do it in my house.  They said they’d buy everything and clean up everything.  I warned them that all 40 of them would be very crowded in my small apartment; I said they are welcome to do it, but they must understand how small the space is.  The next day in class, they said they would rent a room off campus so that the whole class could fit comfortably.  We’ll see how it all works out. 🙂

5) I have never seen so many people attached to their phones as I’ve seen in China.  I see people riding their e-bikes across campus or in the busy city, driving cars, walking ~ all totally absorbed in their phones.  When I give my class a 10-minute break, I come back to find them in utter silence, all tapping away frantically at their phones.  They watch movies or TV shows online, and they buy everything on Taobao.com, THE premiere online shopping website.  I wish they would learn that life itself, if they opened themselves up to it, is much more interesting than anything they could find on their cell phones!

6)  We have a lot of lotus ponds around the campus and now all that’s left of them are brown ugly stalks.  One day while walking, I was surprised to come across these men wading in the ponds cleaning up the dead lotus leaves.

cleaning up the lotus ponds

cleaning up the lotus ponds

7) One day I was walking to Wal-Mart, a place I NEVER shop in the U.S. but I’ve found to be quite useful for Western items here in China.  In the distance I saw a huge white pile of something moving slowly toward us down the street.  When it got up closer, I could see it was a lady transporting a huge load of styrofoam on her bicycle.  The styrofoam lady!

the styrofoam lady

the styrofoam lady

8) I’m starting to feel very depressed by the gray skies here in Nanning.  When I first got here, it was always hazy, but you could see blue skies behind the haze.  However, I hated the weather because of the heat and humidity.  Every time I walked out the door of my air-conditioned apartment, I was immediately drenched in sweat.  Now that autumn is upon us, it’s cooler but still very damp, and with gray skies almost every day.  On one day last week, I went for a walk and was happy to find some blue skies.  Here’s what a blue sky day looks like on the campus.

blue skies over the lotus pond

blue skies over the lotus pond

blue skies at the university

blue skies at the university ~ a rare thing

9) Students on the campus are constantly involved in group activities.  I see dancing, aerobics, exercise, marching, singing — every activity imaginable.  A couple of weeks ago, the students from the Student Union handed out a flyer asking people to submit photos for a photo exhibit.  I sent a couple of my favorites in.  Today was the exhibition at the sports field.  I dropped by to find my students, Albert and Leo.  As I walked down the chain link fence, admiring all the photos taken by students and teachers alike, all the students there, about 12 altogether, followed me down the line.  I was asked to vote for 3 of my favorites, and Albert followed me as I voted, looking over my shoulder and asking me to sign my name.  So much for a private ballot!  I voted for Albert’s photo and two others by students I didn’t know but met today.

I loved this student’s two photos of boats on Erhai Lake near Lijiang in Yunnan province, a place I want to visit over my winter holiday.

A student whose photos I loved with three of his photos

A student whose photos I loved with three of his photos

My photos were all displayed here, but you can’t see them very well.  Four were from Oman, one from Nepal and one from Yangshuo.

the six photos I entered, four of which were from Oman, one from Nepal and one from Yangshuo

the six photos I entered, four of which were from Oman, one from Nepal and one from Yangshuo

unknown student, Albert and Leo (my two students)

unknown student, Albert and Leo (my two students)

The students convinced me to have a seat and play a matching card game. The cards had the photos from the exhibit on them.  When I found two that matched, I could remove them.  They timed each competitor and the one who was the fastest would win.  I wasn’t the fastest but I wasn’t the slowest either.

students playing a matching card game

students playing a matching card game

I went over the check out the Ming china competition, and I found my students, Eva and Fiona, playing with clay.

My students Eva and Fiona (who was moved out of my class), making Ming china pottery replicas!

My students Eva and Fiona (who was moved out of my class), in a Ming China pottery making competition

10) This weekend, I’m feeling very unmotivated to go out and explore.  It’s cold and skies are gray, so I just feel like hunkering down in my apartment and staying cozy.  Last weekend, I had quite a social weekend, seeing Interstellar on Friday night, going to Babel downtown on Saturday night for a colleague’s birthday, having pizza with some friends on Sunday.  This weekend, once again, not a soul seems to be around, and I’m feeling rather unsociable.  My needs for company come and go with the wind; sometimes I feel really lonely here and other times I’m perfectly happy being alone.  But that is the nature of the expat life.  I am really looking forward to Mike’s visit in late January or early February.  I think it will be here before I know it.  I have a lot of travel planning to do before his arrival. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, ESL Teacher, Expat life, Guangxi University, Guangxi University Athletic Field, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, NanBai Supermarket, Nanning, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC) | Tags: , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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