Chinese food

cocktail hour in the laundry room: the dragon boat festival that wasn’t

Monday, June 22:  Good evening and big hugs to you.  I’m so glad you dropped by for another laundry room cocktail hour. Please, have a seat in my comfortable chair.  I’m so anxious to hear about your week.  Would you like a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or a cold Budweiser?  Usually I buy Chinese beer, but I’ve decided it tastes a little too watery for my taste.   I must confess, I already started celebrating a bit before your arrival.  Just a wee glass of wine, or two.  I’m hoping that will make me more relaxed, and more ready to hear all you have to say.

One of many lotus ponds on the campus

One of many lotus ponds on the campus

It’s plenty warm out here in the laundry room, but it doesn’t seem quite as humid as usual, so maybe we can bear it for a while.  The sun is shining, a rarity in Nanning, so we might want to catch some of the rays, even if they’re coming in at a low angle.  Do you agree it isn’t so bad out here tonight?  I’m quite enjoying it because I’ve been sitting inside in air conditioning all day. I’ve been huddled under a blanket, so it’s nice to be outside enjoying the summer evening.

a particularly pretty lotus pond on campus

a particularly pretty lotus pond on campus

I took some pictures with my iPhone this week during several walks I took around the campus.  They’re here in the post so you can see what my daily walks look like.  Well, not quite daily, but at least four times a week.  I had a bizarre thing happen this week, most notably that a young Chinese man on a bicycle tried to proposition me.  This happened quite regularly in Oman, and everywhere I’ve been in the Middle East, but it has never happened before in China.  I was quite shocked by it. I’ll tell more about it, with a picture of the perpetrator, once I leave China.  Don’t worry, I WILL tell you all about it eventually.

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

We should celebrate because it’s been a three-day weekend for the Dragon Boat Festival. I’m always happy to have an extra day in which I don’t have to work, even if I do absolutely nothing to celebrate the actual holiday.

The Dragon Boat Festival was on Saturday, June 20.  Here’s what China Travel Guide has to say about it:  This festival has been held annually for over 2,000 years and commemorates the patriotic poet Qu Yuan (340-278 BC).  It also acts as a chance for Chinese people to build their bodies and dispel diseases.  Qu Yuan was a minister from the State of Chu and supported a fight against the powerful state of Qin.  Because of this, he was slandered by an aristocrat and exiled by the King.  He wrote many passionate poems to show his love for his country, and is therefore regarded as a famous poet in China’s history. In 278 BC, after finishing his last masterpiece, he drowned himself in the river rather than see his country occupied and conquered by the State of Qin.

On hearing of Qu Yuan’s death, the locals were in distress and fishermen searched for his body by sailing their boats down the river. Other people threw food such as eggs and food like zongzi into the river to attract fish and other animals from destroying Qu Yuan’s body. Later, many people imitated these acts to show their respect for this great patriotic poet and this practice continues today.

Because Qu Yuan died on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, people decided to commemorate him on that day every year. Dragon boat racing and eating zongzi have become the central customs of the festival (China Travel Guide: Dragon Boat Festival).

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

Though the Dragon Boat Festival sounds like a lovely holiday, I didn’t do a thing to celebrate.  I’ve traveled on every single National Holiday since I’ve been in China, and this is the first one where I’ve stayed put. I no longer have the energy to fight the huge crowds that always travel in China on these holidays.  I guess I’m finally starting to feel like often I feel in the U.S. on the national holidays.  I never travel on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day if I can help it.  Sometimes I travel on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but we always try to figure out how to get around the crowds on these holidays.

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

Graffiti on old buildings on the Agricultural College campus

On Saturday afternoon, my student Azura, the one who took me to the apartment restaurant several weeks ago, texted me: “Hi Cathy.  It’s Azura.  Are you at school or travelling to another city?  My parents coming school, and my mother made some different kinds of ‘zong zi’ for you. ‘zong zi’ is traditional food for Dragon Boat Festival.”  After some back and forth emails, Azura had her father drive her to my apartment so she could drop off the zongzi.

Zongzi all wrapped up

Zongzi all wrapped up

Zongzi is pyramid-shaped glutinous rice wrapped in reed or bamboo leaves.  In the north part of the country, people favor the jujube as filling, while the south favors sweetened bean paste, fresh meat, or egg yolk.  The zongzi Azura’s mom made have quail eggs and beef in them, and even some bones!

zings when opened

zings when opened

Eating the zongzi was the closest I came to celebrating the holiday. I’ve been on the go so much over the past number of weekends that I’ve been happy to stay inside all weekend, reading some blogs, writing some blogs, editing some pictures, and watching endless episodes of Revenge.  I also walked every day, and although I’m walking 3 miles a day at a fast pace and sweating buckets, in addition to trying to watch what I eat, I still can’t seem to drop a single pound.  It’s so discouraging!

lotus blossoms

lotus blossoms

Lotus pond

Lotus pond

So, tell me about your week.  What did you do?  Did you travel at all?  Did you enjoy the Summer Solstice? Did you go to any outdoor concerts?  Did you make any lists?  Did you plan any trips for the later part of the summer?  How is work?  Did you have an easy or stressful week?  Did you make a new friend?  Or did you have a conflict with anyone?  Did you have too high expectations in a friendship and did the person let you down?  Did worries keep you from sleeping?  Or did you experience ecstatic joy or pleasure?

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Lotus blossom under cover

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lotus pond and tree

I know it’s been a difficult time in the U.S. with those senseless and hateful killings in a Charleston Church.  Why is there still such hatred in this world?  Why don’t people try harder to understand one another, and to love one another? I find people are becoming increasingly isolated.  It’s a difficult world we live in, so why don’t we all work harder to make it easier, and more loving?  A lot of people have written about this very American racist crisis, and I don’t have anything more to say except that people continue to horrify and disappoint me.  I think most people do have hearts, but we don’t read about them much in the news, do we?

Here in China, life goes on. My students continue to be kind to me, and they reinforce every day that they are the best thing about this job.  When I leave here, I will write about the pros and cons of working at SCIC, and I will also write about what I’m going to miss and not miss in China.   I look forward to writing that post after I leave the country.

I really didn’t do much at all this week except finish my last English Interest Course, “Road Trip American Style.”  This course is not much of anything except having the students watch movies. We watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Little Miss Sunshine, and finally, Chevy Chase National Lampoon Vacation.  The students seemed to enjoy the movies.  The classes are really a waste of our time and the students’ time, in my opinion.  Since they’re on Tuesday afternoons and our last class was this week, now I’ll be finished every day of the week by noon, except for Mondays.  We only have two more teaching weeks remaining, and then it will be exam week.  Thank goodness, as I think we’re all ready to be finished with this semester.

the shady part of my walk

the shady part of my walk

Besides getting totally hooked on the TV series, Revenge, I’ve also been watching Grey’s Anatomy and Mistresses.  I’m still plodding away on Sandcastle Girls. The book is good, but for some reason I seem to be too antsy to read much.  By the time I go to bed, I read about a page or two, and then I’m asleep.

I did attend a small birthday celebration for Nancy, one of the long-time teachers at SCIC.  Here she is with her huge birthday cake, which I was able to partake in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There really is nothing else of interest to tell you about this week.  It’s been deadly dull, to be honest.  Maybe I should have traveled this weekend after all.  I get so bored when there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Once I’m back in my home in Virginia, I’ll be able to find plenty to do, I hope!

I hope you all have a great week.  Please, I hope you have something more interesting to tell me than I had to report!  I need some saucy news! Anything new and adventurous will do.  I can live vicariously through you. 🙂

Peace and love to you all. 🙂

Categories: Agricultural College of Guangxi University, Asia, China, Chinese food, conversation, Dragon Boat Festival, East Campus, English Interest Course, Guangxi University, Holidays, laundry room cocktail hour, Nanning, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Teaching English as a Second Language, Zongzi | Tags: , , , , , , | 48 Comments

cocktail hour in the laundry room: an apartment restaurant & an outing to liangfengjiang national forest park

Sunday, May 17:  It’s Sunday evening again, time for cocktail hour in my humble laundry room. I’m so glad you could drop by! 🙂  Five o’clock is wine o’clock, so please, come in and have a seat in my comfortable Wal-Mart chair while I pour us some chilled Merlot.  I know we’re not supposed to chill red wine, but if I hadn’t put it in the refrigerator, it would be toasty. Warm red wine isn’t very pleasant, not at all.  I used to do this in Oman as well; it seems I’m always living in hot climates and have to refrigerate my wine.

“She wished it were evening now, wished for the great relief of the calendar inking itself out, of day done and night coming, of ice cubes knocking about in a glass beneath the whisky spilling in, that fine brown affirmation of need.” 
― Michelle LatiolaisWidow: Stories

I won’t bore you with a picture of the laundry room this time, but I can tell you that my lavender flowered sheet is still hanging right where it was last week.  The sheet dried during the week, but I never got around to taking it down. The weather got moist, so the sheet is now damp again.  I guess I’ll need to leave it up a while longer until it dries out.

I know I haven’t yet responded to all your comments from my last week’s cocktail hour, but I will, I promise.  Hopefully tonight, after we’ve shared a glass or two of wine. Or the cocktail of your choice.

“The writer is a mysterious figure, wandering lonely as a cloud, fired by inspiration, or perhaps a cocktail or two.” ~ Sara Sheridan

So, how was your week?  Did you get outdoors for some springtime walks?  Did you hear a new song you liked, or did you watch a good movie or read a good book?  Did you eat anything interesting?  Did you make a new friend, or lose an old one?  Did you have a special shared moment with someone, or did you have a falling out with someone?  Did you explore a new place or have a crazy adventure?  Did you sing in the shower or in the car?  Did you get any exercise?  Were you stressed out by work or did you have a relaxing week?

I was happy to get so many responses to my last cocktail hour.  I really wish we could all get together in one place, all of us bloggers, and have a real cocktail hour.  I think we’d have a grand time; I know we’d share a lot of laughter and stories.  I’ve met a few of you in person: Jo, Marianne, and Annette; I really do hope to meet the rest of you one day.

“If you were to ask me if I’d ever had the bad luck to miss my daily cocktail, I’d have to say that I doubt it; where certain things are concerned, I plan ahead.”  ~ Luis Bunuel 

I was a bit curious about some comments I received.  I know I talked a little about my depression last week, but I guess I should clear the air.  I do get depressed from time to time, but I wouldn’t say it’s a constant state of mind.  I’m not crazy about daily life in China mainly because I don’t have one good friend (and I’m normally a “one good friend” kind of girl), but I still have plenty to do and my depression and frustration come and go like dandelion fluff in the wind.  So, I’d like to assure you that you needn’t worry about me.  I’ll be fine.  One thing I’ve always been is a survivor.

I was especially intrigued by Vee’s comment; she guessed I was depressed because my photos looked so dark.   I guess some photographers do that; maybe the best photographers purposely take pictures that reflect their moods. I thought about the pictures I took recently, and the only ones that stick in my mind are the ones in Hong Kong, looking out over Victoria Harbour.  I love those pictures; I think they are some of my best. I felt really lucky to have been there with that fabulous moody late afternoon light and those dramatic dark clouds hanging over the skyline.  I do wonder, do most of you go out taking photos hoping to reflect your state of mind?  Maybe I should be more aware of that.

I had some interesting things happen this week. I met with a fellow novelist, Paul, for dinner.  We are reading each other’s novels and it was time to report back to each other our thoughts about the other’s work.  Paul was very encouraging and told me he can’t believe I’ve been sitting on my novel for over 10 years.  He said he can’t imagine an agent or publisher wouldn’t pick it up.  I was happy to hear that from him, and I don’t think he was just being nice.  I also think he’s an excellent writer; his book is clever and fascinating, especially as it’s somewhat autobiographical and I recognize some of the characters. 🙂

I finished up my midterm marks and handed them in on Friday.  That was a relief.

On Friday night, I met one of my students, a very stylish and cute girl named Azura, for dinner.  She planned the whole evening.  Online, she reserved a table for two, and a meal for four (!), at an “Asian restaurant.”  She wasn’t sure how to find it, so we wandered around behind the NanBai Supermarket looking for an “E” building.  Then we got on an elevator in what looked like an apartment building rather than a commercial building.  On the 11th floor, we walked down a narrow hallway and Azura knocked on door. There was no sign whatsoever indicating it was a restaurant.  A woman in an apron answered the door and invited us in.  Her living room was set up like a very cozy restaurant.  The walls were painted green and she had little decorative knickknacks everywhere: potted plants, stuffed animals, vintage dresses, old guitars.

Azura in the

Azura in the “apartment restaurant”

The woman got busy in the kitchen, cooking up a set meal in big wok.  Azura grabbed some bowls, spoons and chopsticks from a table.  She also grabbed us two kumquat drinks served in clear plastic bags (sort of like Capri Suns in the USA).

kumquat drinks and Azura

kumquat drinks and Azura

She told me we’re allowed to have four of these altogether, since she ordered a meal for four.  When she told me she ordered a meal for four, she said, “I hope you’re hungry!”  I wasn’t that hungry and would never eat that much food, but I tried my best since she went to such effort.

the apartment restaurant

the apartment restaurant

the view out the window of the apartment restaurant

the view out the window of the apartment restaurant

a shelf of knick-knacks in the restaurant

a shelf of knick-knacks in the restaurant

The woman served up pineapple rice, clams with pineapple, fresh fish (head and all) with cilantro and tomatoes, cabbage and potato soup, and pork ribs wrapped in aluminum foil.  We talked about Azura’s dream to get into fashion design and the two boyfriends she once had in high school (“It wasn’t a very good thing,” she told me.)  She’s a Year 1 student, so I sometimes had trouble understanding her, and vice versa, but we only had to resort to our online dictionaries a coupe of times.

After dinner, I tried to pay the bill of 88 yuan (about $14), but she would have none of that.  She wanted to split the bill, so I gave her 44 yuan.  As she prepared to pay the proprietor the money, the woman requested that she please pay online for the meal!  How strange.  Azura had the cash right there, but maybe she just wanted the money to go directly into her bank.

Later, I put up a picture on Instagram explaining this situation, and my friend Dai from Nepal mentioned he read somewhere that “apartment restaurants” are all the rage in China!  I’ve been here for 8 1/2 months, and I’ve never heard of them before now!

We planned next to get a manicure, so we walked down a long street in the pouring rain under Azura’s umbrella because I had left my umbrella at home.  Azura got a manicure, but I ended up getting a pedicure and manicure, my first in China; I’ve never been able to find a salon before now!  After our treat, it was still storming, so I bought an emergency umbrella for 25 yuan, even though I already had one at home.  We leapt and splashed over puddles on the way home, but shortly after I bought the umbrella, it stopped raining. Wouldn’t you know?

It’s getting awfully hot out here in the laundry room now, so why don’t we move inside?  My apartment is rather dreary, but at least we can be cool in the air conditioning.  Can I get you another drink?

On Saturday, I helped a colleague, Erica, sort out her spread sheets for her grades, and then we had some dinner together after.  When I came back home, I watched an episode of Homeland, Season 4, Episode 8.  I couldn’t stand not knowing what would happen next, so I watched episodes 9 and 10, one right after the other without a break. I also saw the season finale of Scandal, which seemed to have been wrapped up very nicely.  Does that mean there are no more scheduled seasons for Scandal?

I also got involved this week in an Irish detective show with Gillian Anderson called The Fall.  I watched all five episodes of Series 1, but I can’t seem to get Series 2, so I’m very frustrated as I can’t find out what happens next!!

Today, I decided to explore a place a colleague, Gavin, had recommended to me some time ago: Liangfengjiang National Forest Park.  Approved by the Ministry of Forestry in September of 1992, the park was one of the earliest national parks in Guangxi. In 2003, it was regarded as one of Nanning’s top scenic spots.

Gavin had told me to take bus 707, changing to bus 301.  I had forgotten the details, but I got on bus 707 and was on it for a long time.  I showed a girl on the bus the Chinese name of the park and she pointed out that I needed to get off in 8 stops to get on bus 301.  Before I got to that stop, a Chinese woman with blonde hair asked me “Spreek jig Duits?”  I said, “You speak German?”  She said, “Yes, no English!” She motioned that I should follow her off the bus at the next stop, and she put me on the phone with a friend “from America.”  I couldn’t hear the woman on the phone because the bus was so noisy.  The blonde Chinese woman kept motioning for me to get off the bus with her, so I did.  I regretted it.  She wanted me to come to a friend’s house for lunch, but I just wanted to go to the park, so I told her I couldn’t. This meant I had to wait a long time for the next 707 bus.  Some other men came up while we were at the bus stop and tried to help as well. They told me the blonde woman wanted me to have lunch with her and her friend.  Of course I hadn’t understood at first, otherwise I would have never gotten off the bus! Here are the whole lot of them.  They were a really helpful bunch!

I then got on bus 15, following their advice, and I got off at what I thought was the right stop.  However, the bus sign said nothing about the #301. So I got on the 707 again, and then I knew I’d gone one stop too far because the Chinese characters didn’t match.  So I got on the bus going the opposite direction, and got off again at the same spot, where someone convinced me to wait for the 301 even though the sign said nothing about the 301.  Finally the 301 came, and I was on it, packed in with people, standing room only.  I finally made it to the park about 1 1/2 hours after I started out!

And what a disappointment it was!!  I could kill Gavin for having recommended it to me.  He had told me it was a nice park in which to take a walk.  Maybe he’s just been in China too long.  It was the shabbiest, most unkempt place I’ve been in Nanning.

The paths were muddy and rutted, the arbors were untended, and the river was murky.  There was the hugest, tackiest picnic area imaginable, with stinky garbage everywhere.  There were people running around flying kites, and there were arcade games where you could throw darts at balloons.  There were miserable-looking ponies to ride.

Now I can cross that place off my list and stop wasting time thinking about it.  How could any Westerner have recommended it as a nice place?   I kept walking around hoping there would be something good to see.  There wasn’t!  Plus I got eaten alive by mosquitos.  The only saving grace was finding some ice cream for sale: I bought a vanilla flavor with chocolate on the outside and banana on the inside.  I think I will stop venturing around Nanning.  There really is nothing to do in this town!

Overall it was a good week, but I did have a sort of falling out with someone.  At least I think I did, although I have no idea why.  Basically we have both been ignoring each other for the last two weeks.  I don’t know what’s going on, but when I feel ignored, I withdraw, and then that probably has a domino effect and makes the other person withdraw more.  So now I feel our friendship is out in the hinterlands, never to be restored.  How does this happen?  I know I can be ultra-sensitive, and I often take things as slights that aren’t meant to be.  Mike tells me that all the time, anyway, and he knows me more than anyone.  Why do I have to be this way?  Is anyone else like this, or is it just me?  I know that I often sabotage my friendships, and I don’t know why I feel the need to do this.  I do know I don’t like feeling hurt or angry, and sometimes by pushing people away, I can avoid those painful feelings. I’m also never the kind of person to run after people, or to beg a person to be my friend.  I just accept it; if someone doesn’t want to be in my company, then I back off and give them space.  Lots of it.

Oh well, at least I have plans to be away the next three weekends.  I’m heading on a work retreat next weekend.  The following weekend, my colleague Erica and I are going to Yangshuo if she can get a day off from her Sunday job.  The weekend after that, I’m supposed to go to Beihai to meet a lady I met in Xi’an.  She’s Finnish and works for a Finnish company there.  So that will get me through the first weekend in June.  Thank goodness!

Cheers to you all, and I hope to see you again next week! Have a wonderful week with lots of happiness and love.  Sending hugs your way. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese food, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, laundry room cocktail hour, Liangfengjiang National Forest Park, NanBai Supermarket, Nanning | Tags: , , , , , | 34 Comments

cocktail hour in the laundry room

Sunday, May 10: I’d like to invite you to join me for a Sunday night cocktail hour in my laundry room.  It’s a bit of a nondescript and narrow space, but I’ve been imagining it’s something nicer, and I’m hoping you can stretch your imagination as well.  We’ll imagine we’re in an embassy house, sitting on a screened-in porch in a Mediterranean country somewhere, perhaps.  That’s what I’ve been doing, ever since I read American Romantic by Ward Just.

I always wanted to be in the Foreign Service, but I failed the Foreign Service exam in 2007 and I never bothered to take it again.  Never mind; it’s too late now.  Their cut off for entering the Foreign Service is 59 1/2 and I’ve already passed that dubious benchmark.

Here is my boring laundry room

Here is my boring laundry room

I’m afraid I don’t have any hard liquor, but I do have some red wine that I bought from Wal-Mart.  It was a good deal, 3 bottles for 99 yuan, or less than $16. Now you know that’s a really good deal for red wine, but of course you can’t expect the wine will be very good.  That’s okay.  We can imagine it is and we can sip on it and enjoy some nice conversation.   I have three kinds: a Brise de France Cabernet Sauvignon, a Marques del Norte Rioja, and finally a Merlot Vin de France.  Which would you prefer?

I can also offer you a Tsingtao beer, but I only have one and it’s a small one.  Maybe next time we meet, you can tell me what you’d like, and I’ll make sure to have it around, and in larger quantities.

Today, in honor of your visit, I washed my prettiest sheets and hung them on the line to create a special atmosphere.  See how much nicer I’ve made it look just for you?

my decorated laundry room :-)

my decorated laundry room 🙂

The view through the windows isn’t very nice, as my laundry room looks out over a characterless courtyard behind a hotel.  We can observe the laundry hanging from the hotel guest balconies.  Maybe we can make up interesting stories about the owners’ lives by looking at their drying clothes.

the view from my laundry room window - think of the stories we could tell from that laundry

the view from my laundry room window – think of the stories we could tell from that laundry

I meant to buy a couple of houseplants to make it more homey, but now that it’s hot, I don’t imagine we’ll want to sit here for long.  We might even have to go inside to the air-conditioning as it’s so hot and humid out in this laundry room, which is really an outdoor room, like a patio, but not.

another angle to the view

another angle to the view

If my laundry room were on the other side of my apartment, and if it were a balcony, like most of the other apartments in our building, we’d be overlooking a pond.  Of course, if we were on the pond side, we’d have to talk VERY LOUDLY to be heard over the screech of the crickets and the gurgle-swallow-burp noise of the thousands of frogs.

the view on the other side

the view on the other side

I’m sorry that I only have one comfortable chair that I bought from Wal-Mart, the only place in town where you can buy some useful Western items.  I’ll give you the comfortable chair, although when I actually have real people join me, I’m often quite selfish and give them the hard chair.  The hard chairs are the only chairs provided for us at the university.  I apologize for their hardness, their total lack of comfort, but these are the chairs the Chinese use.  We better get used to it, I guess, if we’re going to be here in China.

Sorry, I'm in the comfy chair.  However, I'll glad give it up for you. :-)

Sorry, I’m in the comfy chair. However, I’ll glad give it up for you. 🙂

Anyway, welcome to my humble abode and cheers!  Clink!  I’d love to hear about your week.  Did you go anywhere interesting or do anything extraordinary?  Did you do anything at all, even something mundane?  Did you see any good TV shows, watch any movies, read any books?  Did you hear any good music or possibly make a playlist you’d like to share?  Did you have any deep conversations about how you always wanted to straighten your hair when you were younger?  Or did you maybe talk with someone about the meaning of civilization?  Did anyone reveal their deepest darkest secrets to you?  Did you have an altercation with anyone?  Did you have a romantic liaison?

I really want to hear about your week, but I’ll tell you a little something about mine first.  I returned from Shanghai on Monday by noon after a fun but partly rainy weekend.  On the plane, I finished the book I was reading, The Memory of Running, by Ron McLarty.  I could relate to it as it was a kind of quest for the protagonist, Hook, to find meaning, and to find himself, after growing up with a crazy sister.  I know about crazy. I grew up with it too.  I don’t want to do crazy any more; and I’ll avoid it at all costs.

Upon finishing that, I immediately embarked on reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian.  I’ll tell you more about it when I get further along.

I had to invigilate for midterm exams on Tuesday morning, which was deadly dull, as always.  The Foreign Service it’s not!  Then over the rest of the week, I marked 146 essays that were mostly poorly written by Chinese students who tend to say, “You should turn down the voice” (meaning turn down the sound of the music) or “You often listening the loud music late at night,” and “…so I often lose sleep and it let me can’t get up on time in the morning,” and “Is it convenient for you to stop the way of life?”  Or they have to explain a not-so-complicated bar chart that they make ultra complicated in their analysis.  I wished for someone to put me out of my misery, but no one came to my rescue.  It’s okay.  It’s over now, thank goodness.

welcome to my cocktail hour! cheers!!

welcome to my cocktail hour! cheers!!

I had dinner one night at a Korean restaurant and another night at the Red Sign Dumpling place which has suddenly gone upscale.  They used to have metal chairs and uncomfortable tables with a bar across the space where your knees should go, and they used to have no air-conditioning.  But they got new tables and cushioned chairs and they even have a brand spanking new air-conditioning unit!  It was like heaven eating dumplings, mashed potatoes, pork wrapped in wonton skins, and chicken with vegetables there.  Accompanied by a tall bottle of beer.  It hasn’t always been so pleasant to eat there, although the food has always been good.

Me at the Red Sign in February.  It's really gone upscale now.

Me at the Red Sign in February. It’s really gone upscale now.

I walked 3 miles several times this week and did sit-ups and edited a lot of pictures and wrote a lot of blog posts in between marking my exams.  As a matter of fact, I can only stand to do ten exams at a time and then I need an hour of another activity. Some of the hour-long filler activities included watching episodes of Homeland Season 3, Grey’s Anatomy Season 5, and the 21st episode of Scandal‘s Season 4, which just aired in the U.S.  I even began watching the first episode of Madam Secretary, which seems pretty good. By the way, do you know that here in China we can watch any TV series we want for free on Youku?

It’s been very hot and humid here in Nanning, and I am inclined not to go outside unless I have to.  At other times, we’ve had the sky let loose in torrents of rain.  It’s not very pleasant, and I find myself counting the days until I go back home to Virginia.

I find myself quite depressed here lately.  My income in China is very low, and it barely pays for the travels I’ve done.  I was hoping to go somewhere on my way home from China, but that’s out.  I want to take a CELTA course in Washington when I return home and I don’t want to work next semester, so I won’t have any more income coming in until I find another job in spring of 2016.  This is the worst-paid job I’ve ever had, about half what I made in Korea and much less than half what I made in Oman.  In both of those places, I also earned one month’s salary as a gratuity for completing my contract.  I don’t get that here.  Of course, Mike supports me and I have a home to return to, but by not having my own money, I forfeit my independence.  I don’t like that.

But that’s not the real reason I’m depressed.  I’m depressed because I don’t have a partner in crime here.  There is no one I connect with here who is adventurous or fun-loving.  In short, there is no Mario.  It’s often a lonely existence, and that’s why I waste my time with a lot of ridiculous activities like watching all these TV series, something I have rarely done before.  I usually am not a TV watcher at all.

I do have some friends here, but I find we have an unbalanced relationship.   I am a very open person.  Anyone who reads my blogs knows that.  I’ll always tell anyone anything they want to know. I’m an open book.  But I find it’s always me talking and never getting anything in return.  I feel like the friends I have know everything about me, and I know almost nothing about them.  They’re reticent, reserved, or unwilling to open up.  These are not the kinds of relationships I like, and I find myself getting annoyed at the one-way nature of them.

I’m tired of people here who have never lived or worked anywhere else but China, and who have blinders on.  Not knowing any better, they think China is the be all and end all of existence.  It isn’t.  I can guarantee you that.

It’s time for me to go home.  I hope I’ll survive my loneliness and my deteriorating attitude for two more months.

As you can see, it hasn’t been a very exciting week for me here in Nanning.  The most exciting thing in fact is this cocktail hour in my laundry room. Please come again. I promise I’ll give you the soft chair next time around.   But only if you’ll stay awhile.  And only if you’ll share a part of yourself.

This post was inspired by Robin’s Weekend Coffee Share over at Breezes at Dawn: If we were having coffee

Please, tell me something about your week in the comments.  I’d love to start a conversation. 🙂

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese food, conversation, Dumplings, Guangxi University, laundry room cocktail hour, Nanning, Sino-Canadian International College (SCIC), Teaching English as a Second Language, Tsingtao Beer | Tags: , , , , , | 62 Comments

the muslim quarter & the great mosque of xi’an

Monday, April 20: After leaving the Drum Tower, I venture into the heart of the Muslim Quarter to explore.  I’m assaulted by colorful banners, food carts and stalls, along with the delicious smells of dumpling soup, beef or mutton Rou Jia Mo (Chinese Hamburger), northwestern style noodles, and Yangrou Paomo, or crumbled flatbread (unleavened bread) in mutton stew.  It’s noisy and lively, a vibrant scene where I can wander along aimlessly among the crowds toward the Great Mosque.

The Muslim Quarter in Xi'an

The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Below is a stall of stuffed flatbread, simply dough fried on a large pan surface and pressed down. Once fried, the flatbread is opened and stuffed with meat.

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

The lively Muslim Quarter in Xi'an

The lively Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Food for sale!

Food for sale!

a Muslim food vendor

a Muslim food vendor

Sea creatures

Sea creatures

Enticing food

Enticing food

Muslim Quarter in Xi'an

Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

Muslim Quarter

Muslim Quarter

After a leisurely stroll, I wind up at the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China.  Established in 742 during the Tang dynasty (618-907), it was restored and widened in the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.  It was built in the shape of a rectangle from east to west, and it is divided into four courtyards.

Islam was introduced into Northwest China by Arab merchants and travelers from Persia and Afghanistan during the mid-7th century when some of them settled down in China and married women of Han Nationality. Their descendants became the Muslims of today. The Muslims played an important role in unifying China during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Hence, other mosques were also built to honor them (Travel China Guide: Great Mosque).

In the first courtyard is the Wooden Memorial Archway with upturned eaves and glazed roof tiles.  This archway was built at the beginning of the 17th century, dating back over 390 years.

Entrance to the Great Mosque

Entrance to the Great Mosque

Entry gate to the Great Mosque

Entry gate to the Great Mosque

In the middle of the second courtyard are three connected memorial gateways supported with four pillars.  On the top of the main gate is a title inscribed in Chinese calligraphy: “The Court of the Heaven.”  Stone carved fences are around the gateways with two passages on both sides.  This stone complex was built in the Ming dynasty.

Another gateway to the Great Mosque

The Stone Memorial Gateway

Gardens at the Great Mosque

Gardens at the Great Mosque

Pavilion at the Great Mosque

Pavilion at the Great Mosque

Another gate at the Great Mosque

Another gate at the Great Mosque

Yizhen Pavilion is also known as Phoenix Pavilion.  The main pavilion in the center is hexagonal with cornices and pinnacles, which looks like the head of a phoenix. Pavilions on two sides are triangular with reflexed wings.  These three pavilions are connected in a unique shape, as if a phoenix is spreading its wings.

pathway leading to the Great Mosque

pathway leading to the Great Mosque

Yizhen Pavilion, also known as Phoenix Pavilion

Yizhen Pavilion, also known as Phoenix Pavilion

The Great Mosque melds Arabic motifs into familiar Chinese designs, making it different from mosques found in other Islamic countries.  The mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets.

The Worship Hall has a turquoise roof and exquisite carvings on the doors and eaves.

Final gateway to the Great Mosque

Final gateway to the Worship Hall at the Great Mosque

The main hall can hold 1,000 people at a time and according to traditional custom, prayer services are held five times everyday respectively at dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk and night.

Door at the Great Mosque

Door to the Worship Hall

On the inside of the Worship Hall, all the pages of the Holy Koran are carved in the 600 pieces of huge wooden boards; 30 of them are in Chinese while the others are in Arabic.

Doorway at the Great Mosque

Doorway to the Worship Hall

In 1956, the mosque was decreed to be an important historical and cultural site under the protection of the Shaanxi Provincial Government.  In 1988, it was promoted to be one of the most important sites in China.

Eaves on the Great Mosque

Eaves on the Worship Hall

Islamic motifs

Islamic motifs

Islamic motifs

Islamic motifs

Islamic motifs

Islamic motifs

a hall flanking the Great Mosque

a hall flanking the Great Mosque’s main prayer hall

looking through a gateway to the main prayer hall

looking through a gateway to the main prayer hall

In the middle of the third courtyard, “The Introspection Tower” serves as the minaret, which is the tallest building in the whole mosque for calling Muslims to prayer.  With two stories, three layers of eaves, and an octagonal roof, it would be very impressive if it weren’t being renovated on this day!

Pavilion being renovated

Pavilion being renovated

relief sculpture

relief sculpture

Returning to the entrance, I see the Wooden Memorial Archway from the other side.

back to the first courtyard

back to the first courtyard

The Five-Room Hall sits at the entrance to the second courtyard.

looking back on the grounds of the Great Mosque from the main gate

The Five Room Hall

As I make my way out of the mosque and back into the Muslim Quarter, I find these interesting T-shirts with pictures of “Oba Mao.” 🙂

Oba Mao

Oba Mao

Suddenly, I’m back in the bustling Muslim Quarter, where suddenly I’m feeling very hungry.  Though all the food looks enticing, I’m determined to find a bread soup that one of my colleagues told me about.

Muslim chefs

Muslim chefs

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

Food vendors in the Muslim Quarter

back to the Muslim Quarter

back to the Muslim Quarter

Muslim Quarter

Muslim Quarter

Jujube, otherwise known as Chinese dates, are commonly seen here in the Muslim Quarter.

Market goods

Market goods

streets of the Muslim Quarter

streets of the Muslim Quarter

Every kind of dehydrated fruit imaginable is sold in the Muslim Quarter.

Goodies for sale

Goodies for sale

more goodies

more goodies

dinnertime

dinnertime

Muslim market

Muslim market

Muslim market

Muslim market

a street in the Muslim Quarter

a street in the Muslim Quarter

Lively street

Lively street

Finally, I find a restaurant where I see people sitting at outdoor tables busily tearing bread into tiny pieces into bowls.  I’ve found the famous soup!

I also see these two friends talking amiably.  They look like what I imagine Chinese intellectuals would look like.

two men absorbed

two men absorbed  

I step inside the restaurant where I order the Crumbled Flatbread (unleavened bread) in Mutton Stew, in Chinese, Yangrou Paomo. I’m given a large bowl and two pieces of round, flat unleavened bread.  

the unleavened pita bread

the unleavened pita bread

I observe the people at the tables around me and realize I should break the bread into small pieces so that it can absorb the flavor of the liquid.   The bread is hard and the process is time-consuming.  I see many people are breaking their bread into tiny pieces, but I tear mine up into slightly larger pieces, one, because I don’t want to sit all day tearing the bread, two, because I’m famished, and three, because I’m envisioning the bread pieces becoming something like dumplings, chicken-and-dumpling style, once the soup is poured over them.

the bread torn up in the bowl

the bread torn up in the bowl

After I prepare my bread, I take my bowl to the chef at the back of the restaurant.  He ladles hot soup over the bread, topping it off with pieces of beef (mutton is also popular). Back at the table, a Chinese young man who speaks a bit of English instructs me to add chili paste, caraway and a specially salted sweet garlic to the dish.

the soup with beef poured over the bread

the soup with beef poured over the bread

It is the most delicious thing imaginable!  I end up taking out the meat as it’s a little fatty for my taste, but I enjoy every bite of that bread, which does in fact turn into something resembling a cross between dumplings and späetzle.  I’m in heaven.

I sure wish I didn’t always have to worry about getting stomach problems or gaining weight, because I love food, especially a dish such as this!!

the Drum Tower in daylight

the Drum Tower in daylight

After lunch, I make my way back past the Drum Tower and head back to the hotel to relax a bit before I tackle the ancient city walls.

gardens and Drum Tower

gardens and Drum Tower

Categories: Asia, China, Great Mosque, Muslim Quarter, Shaanxi, Travel, Xi'an, Yangrou Paomo, Yizhen Pavilion | Tags: , , , , , | 12 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

shopping conundrums in the south of china

Tuesday, September 9:  I need shampoo and conditioner, body lotion and toilet paper, a scrub brush and cleaning solution.  I go with my list in hand to NanBai SuperMarket outside the main gate of the university.  Foolishly, I figure I’ll be able to find these things easily.  I’m wrong.  Have you ever noticed that shampoo and conditioner bottles, as well as body lotion and body wash, all look alike?  We can tell them apart in our home countries, but only because we can read the labels.

NanBai Supermarket

NanBai Supermarket

The array of products in the supermarket is overwhelming. Of course most products don’t have English labels, so you have to figure out what you’re looking at by scoping out similar products in the same aisle, or by looking at pictures on the package, or by asking for help.  Asking for help isn’t easy either, as most of the staff in the supermarket speaks no English.

I do recognize one thing.  Chinese kisses, of the Hershey’s variety.

Chinese kisses

Chinese kisses

The Chinese people seem to love their snacks.  There are hundreds of choices, and I don’t know what half of them are.

Lots of mini-snacks of some kind

Lots of mini-snacks of some kind

It’s common knowledge that the Chinese language is especially difficult because Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet.   Each character generally represents one syllable of spoken Chinese and may be a word on its own or a part of a polysyllabic word. The characters themselves are often composed of parts that may represent physical objects, abstract notions, or pronunciation.  Educated and literate Chinese people must memorize about 4,000 symbols.

I’d think English would be easy in comparison.

I’d love to buy some beer, but I have no idea what kind to get.  I pick a couple randomly: Tsingtao and Xiaomaiwang.

Even the beer is confusing

Even the beer is confusing

I pull out my phone and look at my Chinese translation app, Pleco.  This app will save my life in China.  Either that or I need to seriously learn some Chinese.  The app allows you to spell out an English word, and then a drop-down list of Chinese words pops up.  You can look through the definitions and find the one closest to your meaning.  When I put in “shampoo,” I find seven different words for shampoo: xifaji, xiangbo or xifaru are a few of them.  These are the Pinyin spellings, and they also have marks on them like stress marks, short vowel sound marks, etc, but I don’t know how to type them in, so you can just imagine.  Pinyin is the official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in the People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore.

Besides Pinyin, which helps us Westerners to approximate the word by sounding out the Latin letters, the word is also in Chinese characters, and if you push a speaker button, a Chinese voice pronounces the word.  I look carefully at the Chinese characters on the app and try to recognize the characters on the bottles.  None of them seem to match, but then again there are seven different Chinese words for shampoo in my Pleco translation app.  Finally, I have to resort to asking for help.

The Chinese salesgirl knows no English at all, but she’s eager to help.  I show her the word for shampoo, xifagi, along with the Chinese characters, and I press the button to play the voice saying the word, which actually sounds like “see-fah’-tee.”  She pulls me over to a shelf and points out the shelves with shampoos.  I pick Dove because I know that brand.

Pleco translation: shampoo

Pleco translation: shampoo

Then on to conditioner.  The first words that come up have to do with air conditioners.  Finally, down the list, I find hufasu, for hair conditioner.  At first she is showing me body washes because she motions as if she’s washing her arms and her body.  I make motions indicating I’m looking for something for my hair.  I pick up another Dove product.

For the body lotion, two words pop up.  One is runfuru which means both body lotion and body shampoo.  These are two different things and I don’t want to get one, thinking it’s the other.  The other is runfulu, which is just body lotion.  The girl picks bottles off the shelves and has me sniff them.  I take the one called Rose Body Essence.

Toilet paper is easy because I know I’ll recognize it.  The problem is I don’t know where it is in the store.  Since the girl is so helpful, I ask her where it is after looking it up: shouzhi, pronounced like sho-jay, and she takes me to it.

I have already looked around and around for a scrub brush and have been unable to find one.  When I type in “scrub brush,” there are no results.  I type in “brush” and get a lot of brushes, for hair, for brush-off, for writing, for painting, for cleaning pots and pans.  I want one for the floor, and there doesn’t seem to be such a thing.  While making motions and showing her the word xishua, pronounced see-schwah, several shoppers and other salesgirls gather around us and are trying to figure out what I’m looking for.  Everyone seems baffled, even the girls who speak a little English.  Finally, something clicks, and the salesgirl pulls me to the aisle with mops and brooms.  Voila! There is one, although it seems a flimsier version of what we use for scrub brushes in America.

We go through the same rigmarole with cleaning solution.

Cleaning solutions

Cleaning solutions

I find the word qingjieji, which sounds like tsching-tia-ti.

cleaning solution

cleaning solution

The problem is the sales girl is showing me cleaning solutions for kitchen sinks and countertops and I need it for floors.  I motion as if I’m cleaning the floor and she points out a bottle that says Floor Cleaner on it. I would have seen it if I’d had my glasses on.

Floor cleaner, not to be mistaken for body wash

Floor cleaner, not to be mistaken for body wash

When all is said and done and my shopping basket is neatly filled with all the items on my list, I want to tell the girl how nice she has been to help me.  I look up “you,” and find “Nǐ.”  Then I look up “nice” and I find “hǎo.”  I say to her “Nǐ hǎo?” but I’m confused because “Nǐ hǎo” means “hello” in Chinese!  She looks at me quizzically and I laugh and she laughs because we both understand that Nǐ hǎo is not what I’m trying to say at all.

There is definitely a limit to these translation apps. 🙂

Later, Caleb, my friend and colleague who speaks fluent Chinese gets a laugh out of my story.  He says I needed to say: “Nǐ hěn bùcuò,” meaning “You ARE nice.”

At the checkout stand, I either have to provide my own bag, which I don’t have with me today, or I need to ask for the number of bags I want to buy.  Caleb taught me a handy sentence for this.  “Wo yao yi ge dai zi,” meaning “I would like one bag.” The Google Translator has it as:  Wǒ xiǎng yīgè dàizi.  Before Caleb taught me this, I would indicate with my fingers how many bags I wanted. This is now the only complete sentence I can say in Chinese. 🙂

When I get home, I put all my groceries away.  I put the floor cleaner in my bathroom with my shampoo and conditioner as if it’s body wash.  I momentarily forget I didn’t buy any body wash!  Then I’m looking all over for the Floor Cleaner and decide the checker must have forgotten to put it in my bag.  Finally, when I put my glasses on, I go back to inspect the “body wash” and find that it’s in fact my floor cleaner.  I’m sure glad I didn’t use it to wash my face and body when I took my next shower. 

This is what I get for going around without glasses. 🙂 

Friday, September 26:  I want to buy index cards to use in my classes.  I go to my favorite stationery store and I look all over.  I can’t find any, so I put “index cards” in my app.  No results found.  Then I try to explain to the shopkeeper what I want. I take some lined Post-it® notes and I take some postcards, and I point to the Post-it® notes and then to the postcard to show I want the Post-it® Notes in cardboard form.  She doesn’t understand.  I look up “cardboard” and show her, but she still doesn’t understand.  A Chinese girl who speaks some English overhears and comes to help.  I explain to her what I want, and it slowly dawns on her what I want.  She asks the shopkeeper, who says they don’t carry these kinds of cards.  The Chinese girls tells me she doesn’t think I can find them in China.

I end up buying 3 boxes of postcards which can serve the same purpose but are a lot more expensive.

Saturday, September 27:  I go to the open market at the university hoping to find a cheap ironing board.  The university provided one in my apartment, but it was so filthy and disgusting that I threw it in the trash a day after I arrived.  Later I got chewed out when I told them I threw it away because they said it belonged to the university and I had no right to throw it away.  I said I would have asked for a new one anyway because it was disgusting, but they would have none of that.  They insisted that I pay for the one I threw away.  I told them I would replace it because I need one anyway, and I don’t want them to simply provide me with another filthy one.

I can’t find an ironing board at this market, so I wander around looking at the fruits and vegetables.  Vendors try to sell me various foods, but honestly I don’t know what they are and I don’t want to buy something when I have no idea what it is.  One man points to a pomelo, which I’ve never tasted, and I agree to buy it.  I’ve heard they’re good, and I want to try new foods while I’m here.  The vendor has a sharp curved knife in his hand and makes a move like he will cut the top of the pomelo off if I like.  I shake my head “No,” because why on earth would I want him to cut into that huge thing right at the market?  I’ll wait till I get home to do that.   Of course I’m curious as to why he wants to do that, but I have no way of knowing.  Was he only going to sell me a part of it?  Or was he expecting me to taste it or eat it right there?

Another vendor points to these hairy small fruits (see below), and pulls one from the stem.  He hands it to me; I presume he wants me to taste it.  I stick it in my mouth, but it’s like eating a kiwi without peeling it.  I spit it out in pieces, confused.

What ARE these fruits?

What ARE these fruits?

Without even a smirk at my foolishness, the vendor patiently demonstrates how to peel it, exposing a white fleshy fruit inside.  “Oh!” I say, continuing to spit out the peeling and fruit that I’ve mushed together in my mouth.  He hands me small plastic bag in which to put my regurgitated fruit.

I want to burst out laughing at how ridiculous I must look to him, but he is still not cracking a smile.  He must have been laughing it up inside, and I bet he had a good story to tell his family when he got home. 🙂

Oh, shopping conundrums!

 

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese food, Chinese language, Chinese markets, Expat life, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Language barrier, NanBai Supermarket, Nanning, Pinyin, Pleco app, Translation, Xiaomaiwang beer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

typhoon kalmaegi brushes past nanning

Tuesday, September 16:  Today, high winds are blowing across our little campus and neatly sweeping away the heat and humidity.  We’ve had some sudden bursts of rain, and more is forecast.  This has encouraged the dust to settle down a bit, and has beckoned me to open my windows.  Outside, the weeping willow trees across the pond are billowing and the trees outside my window are dancing with gusto.  I love the gushes of wind and the shushing of the trees.

dancing weeping willow

dancing weeping willow

Typhoon Kalmaegi, the Korean word for seagull, is coming to town. Or at least it’s passing by on its way to somewhere else.  As I’m already tired of the heat and humidity, I’m thrilled to experience this bit of climate change.

Here’s Tuesday’s news about the Typhoon: Typhoon Kalmaegi Kills 10 in the Philippines; Hong Kong Braces for Brush with Storm

I’m oblivious to the fact that this storm is Typhoon Kalmaegi until I get this letter, addressed to all the teachers, from the university today.

storm clouds brewing

storm clouds brewing

As Typhoon Kalmaegi is coming, it is probably that there will be continuous strong rainfall as well as windstorm in these days. We kindly remind you that when Typhoon Usagi comes, please be aware of the following things:

First of all, strong winds may blow down buildings and installations in high places, causing casualties or even deaths. Therefore, do not take shelter from rain near temporary constructions, billboards and towers. If you have a car, avoid driving in areas influenced by strong wind. Remove flowerpots and things hanging outside your apartment. Check your windows and doors and fasten them if necessary. Check the circuit inside your room. Pay attention to the prevention of fire. Do not use computer when there are thunder and lightning.

Second of all, please prepare a torch, a radio, some food, drinking water and some necessary medicine if you think it is necessary. Clean pipelines timely so as to keep the drainage system inside your room unobstructed.

flowers in the breeze

flowers in the breeze

Thirdly, when typhoon comes, stop all activities outside, and stay at your apartment. If you have to walk outside, you have to wear waterproof shoes and tight, formfitting clothes. Button up your clothes or have them fastened with belts in order to minimize your body area exposed to the wind. Wear a raincoat or, if necessary, a helmet when you go into the rain. When you walk into the storm, you should walk slowly and do not try to “run before the wind”. You should absolutely not running along the direction of the wind, or else you will find it very difficult to stop—you even have the danger to be blown away. Try your best to grab a fence, a pillar or anything that is well fastened. Be aware of things following down. When you are turning a corner, you should take a pause and observe nearby environment. When you are crossing a narrow bridge when there is a strong wind, try to crawl instead of walk in case you will be blown away of fall into the water. Do not step into water, especially inside the campus. If you have to, be aware of the depth of the water.

Sometimes there will be power cut during the hitting of typhoon. If so, please calm down. 

Three of us calm down sufficiently to walk to a BBQ dinner on a street quite a distance from campus.  Our trek there is uneventful, but as we leave the restaurant, the sky opens up.  We attempt to dodge the downpour by dipping in shop doors and stopping for shelter in an ice cream shop, where of course we have to sample the goods.  Nonetheless, we are drenched to our cores by the time we get home.  It certainly is an adventure. 🙂

The typhoon is not hitting us directly here in Nanning.  It’s just passing through on its way to some distant locale, and we’re feeling its repercussions, much like folks who live inland in Virginia do when hurricanes hit the East Coast of the USA.  The coastal areas get hit hard, while those inland just get strong winds, a downpour or two, and possibly some flooding.

It’s really not that bad, but as we travel on foot or by bicycle, it does make for an inconvenience.

Wednesday, September 17: More bursts of rain, especially this morning. I was glad I didn’t have to go out in it, because the trees and sky looked violently angry, shaking their weeping willow and palm frond hair as if they were at a wild dance party.  I had a very lazy morning reading Travels with Charley and plotting where to go in China when I get a holiday.

Speaking of holidays, we have a week off for the National Day of the People’s Republic of China from October 1-7.  It’s much too soon for a holiday as we’re just getting underway with our classes.  Plus we hardly have any money because we’ll have received only one paycheck by then.  On top of that, three of us new teachers had to go to the police station today to take our passports, along with results of our medical exam and other paperwork, to apply for our residence permits.  We are told we won’t get our passports back until October 13!  That means that travel outside of China is impossible.  It also means there will be difficulties traveling within China, as hotels generally require a passport.  The police assured me I could use the stamped receipt, which hotels are obligated to honor.  I sure hope so, because I’d hate to take a train somewhere and then be refused admittance to all hotels.  I can envision myself squatting on a street corner with my suitcase, waiting until I can catch another train home.

This evening, a group of us teachers go out for dumplings.  While we’re warm and dry in the restaurant, enjoying a huge spread of dishes, we hear a roar as the rain clouds let loose.  Walking home, we wade through puddles up to our ankles.  Luckily the downpour has ended, but our feet and legs are soaked.

Tonight, I chat with Mike by Skype and he tells me that fall is in the air there, with temperatures dropping to 55 F.  I’m so envious!  If I go abroad again after this year, I simply must find a northern clime, with four distinct seasons. These hot climates really don’t suit my personality.

Thursday, September 18:  This morning, it seems the typhoon has passed.  We attend a teachers’ meeting, slicing our way through thick humid air.  I thought the typhoon would clear out the moisture, but it’s only made it worse.  

Later this afternoon, we’re hit with another downpour.  I’ve been hunkering down inside, tired of getting drenched every time I go out.  Now, as I sit in my apartment looking over the pond, I believe I can see some blue skies in the last waning light before sundown.  I’m ready now for this typhoon to move along and leave us in relative peace.

 

Categories: Asia, China, Chinese BBQ, Chinese food, Dumplings, Expat life, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Nanning, Typhoon Kalmaegi | Tags: , , , , , , | 14 Comments

nǐ hǎo: easing into life in nanning

Monday, September 1:  I have a long chat on the plane from Beijing this morning with two people who know a lot about Nanning, and they recommend some places I should go while here.  The young woman, Yilan, who works in Beijing, is traveling to visit her family for a holiday.  She recommends I visit the north sea of Beihai, Yangshuo, Yinxi, and Detian Waterfall.   Of course, I have a lot of places I want to visit, if time and money permit: Guilin & Yangshuo, Kunming in Yunnan Province, Hong Kong, Burma and Laos.

Nanning, meaning “South Tranquility,” is the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China and is about 99 mi (160 km) from the Vietnam border.  It is known as the “Green City” because of its abundance of lush tropical foliage.  If you’d like to read more about the city, you can check Wikipedia: Nanning or China Travel Guide: Nanning.

Nanning sits in a hilly basin with elevations between 230 and 1,640 ft above sea level.  Qingxiu Mountain dominates the southern part of town.  The city has a warm, monsoon-influenced humid subtropical climate, with an annual mean temperature of 71.3 °F (21.82 °C). Summers are hot and humid with July, the hottest month, having a 24-hour average temperature of 83.1 °F. Winters are mild and somewhat damp with January, the coolest month, averaging 55.2 °F (12.9 °C) in January. From February to August, rain is most frequent and relative humidity consistently averages above 80 percent; the annual rainfall is 51.6 in. The area is also frost-free for all but 3 or 4 days a year and snowfall is virtually unheard of in the city.

I disembark at the tiny airport of Nanning Wuxu International Airport, which seems way too small for a city of 6.6 million people at the prefecture level, 2.5 million in the metro area.   Amy, a student at the university, is a little late picking me up, which gives me a bit of a panic.  She takes me directly by taxi to Guangxi University, on the west side of Nanning.  We drive through the bustling city, clogged with cars, buses, motorbikes, trucks and people scurrying along in all directions.  The city is currently building an underground railway, and later I’m told that the railway construction is making for greater congestion than normal.

Amy leaves me on the sidewalk with my bags to wait while she fetches a key from another building.  While I’m standing there, a group of young students comes by and wants to pose for photos with me.

My first encounter with Chinese students upon my arrival

My first encounter with Chinese students upon my arrival

After I drop my suitcases in my apartment, Amy offers to take me to lunch.   She takes me to a fast food restaurant, where she pays for my lunch and then takes off to head to the airport again.

Noodles with vegetables and eggs

Noodles with vegetables and eggs

My first impressions of the apartment where I’ll live for the next 10 months are much like my first impressions of my first house in Oman, a run-down villa: my first floor “villa” behind the shoe store.  That place was run down, dirty and filled with bugs of every stripe.  This apartment in China is smaller, and similarly rough around the edges.  I don’t have a couch at all in my apartment, just some hard chairs, so I don’t see me using the living room much.  The kitchen is small and stained and the bathroom is gritty, but at least there is good water pressure and hot water.  The bedroom does at least have a nice view out over a lotus pond.

My bedroom

My bedroom

the view out my bedroom window

the view out my bedroom window

the living room

the living room

the tiny kitchen

the tiny kitchen

Later, a fellow teacher tells me that at the university where he was last year, he had a spacious brand new apartment, so he wishes he could go back “home” to there, despite the fact that the pollution was so bad he never saw sight of the sky.  Today, he was thrilled to see blue sky and white clouds.

The worst thing are the fluorescent light fixtures.  The previous tenant left a floor lamp, but it has no bulb.  Getting one will be my first priority, so I can read comfortably in bed. Right now the only light is a bright fluorescent light on the wall opposite the head of the bed, not very useful for reading.

Upon arrival, we immediately get busy with settling-in matters.  All of our tasks are done on foot, walking around the campus and the surrounding areas in the sweltering heat and humidity. First stop, a photo shop to have mug shots taken: I am told to keep my mouth closed and not smile, put my hair behind my ears, and pull up my somewhat low-cut top.  What results is the most horrific photo imaginable.  We proceed to the police station to register; I feel sure those pictures will put me on their most wanted list.

Then we go to the bank to open our bank accounts, but they require a phone number before they can proceed. This will have to be put off until tomorrow.

Caleb, about the age of my oldest son, is another newbie to Guangxi University; we’re going through all these processes together.  He’s from North Carolina but studied in China for several years and taught at another university in China last year.  He speaks fluent Chinese, so it’s great to have him around. He’s an easy-going and bright young man and  I’m happy to have met him.  Chen, the Human Resources person at the university, is also very helpful.  He’s patient with all the long waits and paperwork and his patience rubs off on me.  This is highly unusual, as I’m not known to be a patient person.

I meet another teacher named Kelly.  She, Caleb and I seem to be the only new teachers who need a visa, as most of the other teachers have one already from having worked in China before.  Kelly came from Indonesia where she just bought a bungalow.  She’s here in China to work to pay for the property.

I’m trying to think of the positive and to enjoy the experience, although it can be trying.  I do love being out on the streets and seeing all the interesting sights.  Once we get all these necessary things done, I hope to take to the streets with my camera.  It’ll be a while, I think, before I’m settled, and can explore further afield.  I’d like to go into Nanning proper at least by the weekend.

For dinner tonight, I eat nothing.  I am too exhausted to go out, and I don’t have any food in the house.  Maybe this will help me lose some weight, all this walking and not eating.

Tuesday, September 2:  The air-conditioning in my apartment is freezing, and I can’t seem to adjust it to a more reasonable temperature.  So in the middle of the night, I turn it off and open my window, which looks out over a lotus pond surrounded by weeping willows and other lush trees. This is around 2:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, and I can never go back to sleep.  It’s lovely on this first morning in my new apartment, seeing the sun rise and listening to the birds singing, with a view of the pond. I’m so envious that most of the other teachers have balconies looking over the pond but I don’t. Oh well, at least my bedroom has a nice big window, with bars on it, that allow me a lovely view.

the view of the pond out my apartment window my first morning in Nanning

the view of the pond out my apartment window my first morning in Nanning

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morning view of the pond from my apartment

the pond outside my apartment

the pond outside my apartment

When I finally get up, a neighbor named Eddie offers me a packet of coffee, that kind of three-in-one coffee I had all the time in Korea. I boil water in a frying pan as no saucepans or kettles are evident in my apartment.  It takes a long while on the stove contraption I have.  When the coffee is finally ready, it’s time for me to meet Chen and Caleb to go to the phone company.  I don’t even get to drink the coffee, and I have no breakfast.

We proceed to the phone store, where I get a Chinese SIM card for my iPhone.  It doesn’t work too well, possibly because my iPhone 5 is a 3G, and the Chinese SIM is a 4G (whatever that means!).  The phone stuff takes hours. By this time, Caleb and I are starving, so we go to a food stall to slurp down delicious noodles. Then on to meet Chen at the bank, where it takes awhile to get our accounts in order.

When I’m walking around the campus, I feel like I’m not in China, but in some combination country of Vietnam and Korea.  Lots of people, including teachers, ride electric motorbikes everywhere.  Many of the locals wear masks while riding about, or carry umbrellas.  Some people wear what looks like flowered or patterned hospital gowns or long-sleeved shirts, worn backwards, maybe to block out the wind or protect their skin from sun.  There are also a lot of strange transport contraptions, funny looking trucks, bicycle rickshaws, old-fashioned bicycles.  Driving through Nanning Monday on the way from the airport, we passed people on motorbikes carrying caged chickens.  Today, someone motors by with a cage of groundhogs.  Maybe they are going to cook them up?

The lotus pond behind my house, from a different location

The lotus pond behind my house, from a different location

In the afternoon, Caleb and I go to an outdoor food market, and I buy fruits, vegetables and eggs.  When you buy eggs here, they don’t come in a carton.  The vendor just puts them into a thin plastic bag.  I bought 6, along with some plums, walnuts, a passion fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, a red onion and some cabbage.

the open air fresh food market

the open air fresh food market

We walk all the way home carrying our goods, the bag of eggs nestled carefully at the top.  While unpacking in the apartment, I pick up the eggs and SPLAT!  They drop to the ceramic floor as I am putting them in the fridge.  Egg yolk and whites seep across the floor among the shattered shells!  I wasn’t planning on scrambled eggs, but that’s what I get.

fresh food market

fresh food market

By this time, I am exhausted.  Chen had already told us he wouldn’t be able to set up our internet until later, around 6:00 possibly.  In my room, I lie down on my nice hard bed to read Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I’m quite enjoying.  While reading, I drift off and sleep for three solid hours.  I guess I’m not on Chinese time yet.

I wake up to a phone call from Chen, who wants to come hook up my internet.  I am excited to finally have internet, although I can’t get on Facebook or WordPress.  I expected Facebook to be blocked but not WordPress, so this is terribly disappointing.

Despite my numerous trips to the market, I still have no oil to cook with, so I don’t cook anything for dinner. I have no salad dressing, so I don’t make a salad, even though I have lettuce, tomato and cucumbers.  I have one plum and a handful of walnuts for dinner.  It’s like I’m doing everything piecemeal.

As soon as I send a long email to Mike, my computer shuts down and restarts all of a sudden because of a “problem.”  That leads to nothing but frustration, so I go back to The Bonesetter’s Daughter until I drift off to sleep.

Wednesday, September 3:  This morning, after I walk 0.6 miles each way to the NanBai Supermarket, Caleb and I stop by the SCIC (Sino-Canadian International College) building to talk to the schedule coordinator, Lisa.  She tells us orientation for the teachers will be next Wednesday, the 10th, and teachers of second year students start teaching on the 15th.  Teachers for Freshmen (me, apparently) won’t start until the 22nd.  Wow, that’s a lot of time to kill, especially if I don’t have internet.  We pick up our textbooks.  It looks like I’ll be teaching Speaking & Listening and Writing, as well as an English Language Interest course of my design: “Road Trip, American Style.”

After our brief meeting with Lisa, Caleb and I take the K-1 bus to downtown Nanning, where we walk around downtown, and Caleb, a Starbucks lover, is anxious to find his favorite spot for coffee.  We find couples dancing and people sitting on squares of newspapers playing cards and other games in a lively square.  We walk amidst brightly colored buildings, electric motorbikes galore, and a mosque.

dancing couples

dancing couples

dancing couples

dancing couples

Nanning

Nanning

Nanning

Nanning

Motorbikes in Nanning

Motorbikes in Nanning

a mosque

a mosque

Colorful downtown

Colorful downtown

We end up finding a paved walkway beside the Yongjiang River and we wander down that for awhile.  We see some of Nanning’s bridges and some interesting statues, fishermen, and boats.   As we headed back toward the city, it starts raining.

Along the river

Along the river

River in Nanning

River in Nanning

the river

the river

fishermen and fishing boats

fishermen and fishing boats

the river in Nanning

the river in Nanning

fishing boat

fishing boat

baskets and debris

baskets and debris

statue in a park

statue in a park

statue in a park along the river

statue in a park along the river

sea nymphs

sea nymphs

Statues along the river walkway

Statues along the river walkway

Eating snails

Eating snails

We end up in a shopping district called Chaoyang Lu, with pedestrian walkways much like the main shopping district in Daegu, South Korea.  At one point, I stop for a strawberry milk tea with surprising tapioca balls that I have to chew up.  The cute girl who runs the shop wants to have her picture taken with me, so we take turns posing, her coworker taking the shots (you can see him in the mirror). Caleb gets some bite-sized pieces of fried chicken; he shares a bit with me.

a cute Chinese girl after she serves me a strawberry milk tea

a cute Chinese girl after she serves me a strawberry milk tea

Finally, hot, sweaty, and drained, we find a Starbucks and stop in for a coffee, a bit of air-conditioning and some free wi-fi.

Nanning

Nanning

We make our way back to the bus stop and take the K1 bus home.  I ask Caleb how to say “chicken” in Chinese and he says “jirou.” He heads home, and I stop at a little fast food restaurant and say at the front counter: “jirou?”  The boy behind the counter looks at me quizzically.  I say, “jirou?”  He hands me a menu with pictures and sweeps his hand over it.  I can’t tell what’s what from the tiny pictures.  I say again, “jirou??”  More bafflement.  Finally, I do a chicken imitation with my arms, making little “bawk, bawk” noises.  He still has no idea what I’m saying.  Starving, I just point to something on the menu that looks like it might be chicken.  It is, thank goodness, and it’s delicious.

As I walk back from lunch, I take some random pictures of the campus.

Front Gate of Guangxi University

Front Gate of Guangxi University

A rock in a garden on the campus

A rock in a garden on the campus

statue on campus

statue on campus

Reflections

Reflections

Lotus pond on campus

Lotus pond on campus

Lotus pond

Lotus pond

I loved the reflections on the pond

I love the reflections on the pond

motorbikes ~ the preferred mode of transportation

motorbikes ~ the preferred mode of transportation

the view of our pond from another part of our building

the view of our pond from the patio of our building

motorbikes with personality

motorbikes with personality

I go back to the apartment for a while to wait for Chen to come back by to fix my internet.  He comes by and takes my Mac to Internet Services.  At that time, I walk to yet another market to buy some more household goods, including some light bulbs.    On my way back, I find yet another lotus pond.  There are plenty of them on the campus.

Lotus pond behind the supermarket

Lotus pond behind the supermarket

When I return Chen brings back my computer with the internet working… sort of, slowly.

My dinner tonight is really special.  I make a salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a little olive oil.  No vinegar, no seasonings of any kind.  I should be wasting away to nothing with the little eating I’ve been doing.

I settle in with The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and freezing once again, I open the window,  even though it’s quite muggy.  I enjoy hearing the calls and twitters of the birds.  I also hear cheers and slogans from the students doing military training on the campus.

My biggest pleasure is having the floor lamp beside my bed to read by, light bulb and all.

Thursday, September 4:  This morning, Chen takes us downtown to do a Chinese version of the medical exams we already completed in our home countries.  We need this in order to get the resident visa.  When we finish that process, we take a taxi back to campus where Caleb and I search in vain for a dim sum restaurant that Chen told us was in the “mall,” which I see as more of a department store.

Caleb says he has leftovers to eat, so he heads home and I go to the supermarket again.  As I prepare to cross the street near the front gate, my arms loaded with supplies, a man in a truck drives slowly past.   I haven’t found a lot of people staring at me here in China as I did in Korea and Oman.  But this man is staring at me out his window.   As he passes me, I cross the street behind him.  Suddenly, I hear a loud crunch.  The truck has pinned a motorcycle beneath it.  The shaken motorbiker stands and brushes himself off.  I wonder if that truck driver hit the motorbiker because he was staring at me.  Oh dear.

Settled back into my apartment, I spend the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out how to get my internet to work properly.  A Xiaomaiwang beer helps the process along.  I finally do, after many long hour and fruitless attempts, and that’s why you can now experience a bit of my life in Nanning on my blog.

And by the way, I do cook a dinner tonight: a stir-fry of broccoli, mushrooms and red onions, served over the rice I had leftover from lunch.  Maybe I won’t get skinny after all. 🙂

Categories: Asia, Chaoyang Lu, China, Guangxi University, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Nanning, Nanning Wuxu International Airport, Xiaomaiwang beer, Yongjiang River | Tags: , , , , , , | 33 Comments

houhai & wangfujing: rickshaws & weeping willows, scorpions & golden lilies

Friday, September 24: On this journey to China, I’ve brought along a book called Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a novel by Lisa See set in 19th century China.  I’ve been reading it at nights here in Beijing and just last night, I read the chapter titled “Footbinding.”  I cringed while reading this chapter, which goes into excruciating detail about the horrors of footbinding.  “Golden lilies” were considered much more important than a pretty face; tiny feet could improve social standing for a girl.  The way it is described is thus: the feet are bound with bandages such that the four smallest toes were rolled underneath the foot.  The idea was to get the toes and heel to meet, creating a cleft, but leaving the big toe to walk on.  As the bones broke within the tightening bandages, the flesh putrified, with blood and pus oozing out.  During this long tormenting process, the girl was forced to walk back and forth across the floor, causing the bones to break faster and to hurry the process along.  Apparently, one out of ten girls died from footbinding across the whole of China.

Lisa See describes in her excellent book that the goal was to achieve “7 distinct attributes: The feet should be small, narrow, straight, pointed, and arched, yet still fragrant and soft in texture.  Of these requirements length is most important.  Seven centimeters — about the length of a thumb — is the ideal.  Shape comes next.  A perfect foot should be shaped like the bud of a lotus.  It should be full and round at the heel, come to a point at the front, with all weight borne by the big toe alone.  This means that the toes and arch of the foot must be broken and bent under to meet the heel.  The cleft formed…should be deep enough to hide a large cash piece perpendicular within its folds.” (page 26).

I have read of footbinding before, but not in such horrifying detail.  I cannot stop thinking about it and as we meet in the morning for breakfast, it is fresh on my mind. I tell Suzanne about what I’ve read after breakfast and she can’t believe it.  I wonder whether women still do it today and if they are still walking around China with bound feet.

Grace, our guide through the hutong

Grace, our guide through the hutong

Today we have a free day in Beijing, so Suzanne, a couple of other girls and I have made plans to go on a rickshaw through a hutong.  Our tour guide, Grace, arrives to take our little group in a van to the hutong; while we’re waiting for everyone to assemble, I ask her about the practice of footbinding.  She tells me it was banned when the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, but people were still doing it until 1949, when it was finally outlawed forever by the Communists.  Footbinding was practiced for about 1,000 years in China, from the 10th century to the first half of the 20th century. Girls had no say in the matter, as their mothers bound their feet when they were 4-6 years old.  The resulting stumps were regarded as beautiful and exciting to men.

inside the drum tower

inside the drum tower

The pictures I have seen of these feet are so horrible and hoof-like, it’s hard to imagine why men would find them sexy.  They look like animal hooves, honestly.  I ask Grace if it might be possible to glimpse a foot-bound woman on the streets of Beijing today.  She says that it is possible.  I determine to keep an eye out for one of these women, but I never happen to see one during my time here.

the 69 longevity steps

the 69 longevity steps

When we arrive at the hutong, our little group goes to the Drum Tower, from the 15th century Ming dynasty.  In this tower, from which we can see Houhai Lake and the Forbidden City, drums were once beaten to announce dusk and to call imperial bigwigs to meetings.  Every half hour between 10 a.m. and noon and from 2-4 p.m. a group of drummers beats on the giant drums inside.  We witness this not-especially-spectacular spectacle and then climb back down the 69 longevity steps to go outside to meet our orange-vested rickshaw driver.

suzanne, me & our rickshaw driver

suzanne, me & our rickshaw driver

We cruise on our bicycle rickshaw through the alleyways of a hutong near Houhai.  In a whir, we pass through gray alleys, cluttered courtyards, public bathhouses, symbolic gates, bicycles, and other rickshaws. Street vendors offer fruits and women artfully display their vegetables.  It’s breezy & fun, zipping through what used to be the true Beijing, but is now just a carefully preserved specimen of what used to be.

the cozy tea shop where we have a more intimate ceremony

the cozy tea shop where we have a more intimate ceremony

We make a stop for an intimate tea ceremony at a cozy tea shop; since there are only eight of us, I feel this is more like what a tea ceremony should be.  The young lady here tells us we should take 3 sips of each tea for happiness, longevity, and a good future.  The local tea of Beijing is jasmine tea, which is supposed to relax the nerves and mind and help you sleep.  She tells us you can save the tea, dry it in the sun, and make pillows to help with blood flow.  Oolong, or black dragon, tea is made with boiling water and is best in autumn.  Green tea, made with 80 degree water, is best in summer.  She tells us the Chinese tea ceremony is more flexible than the Japanese one; the Chinese emphasize just relaxing and talking with friends.  She says when you have tea in China, you should relax and enjoy.  The procedure is not complicated.

the tea ceremony

the tea ceremony

We browse in the little shop following the ceremony; here I buy some tea and then we continue on in our rickshaws, making another stop at a courtyard house where we are treated to a lovely, but aged, little garden brimming with pomegranate trees.  The owner of the house invites us into his tiny and cluttered living room, where he serves us grapes on a plate.  Grace tells us there are only 100 courtyards remaining in all of Beijing.  In this particular courtyard, surrounded by a number of small buildings, 8 family members and their families live.

a courtyard house in the hutong blooming with pomegranates

a courtyard house in the hutong blooming with pomegranates

We get back in the rickshaw and since I have to take a bathroom break, we stop at a public bathroom.  Apparently, none of the houses in the hutongs have private bathrooms, so people use public bathhouses.  We see plenty of people wandering around the streets in their bathrobes.

After the rickshaw tour, Grace walks us over to the lovely Houhai Lake.  This is my favorite place in Beijing…the Summer Palace being a close second.  Houhai isn’t necessarily a tourist place, although it draws plenty of tourists.  It’s a thriving commercial area with funky and cool shops, restaurants with outdoor cafes and live music, weeping willow trees, paddle boats, bicycles galore, and a cool breeze blowing off the small finger-shaped lake.

the weeping willows of houhai lake

the weeping willows of houhai lake

In Nicole Mones’ book, A Cup of Light, she tells an interesting story of Houhai Lake.  I’m not sure if it’s true, since this is fiction, but she says “this was the body of water to which candidates who failed the imperial examinations came to drown themselves.  There were always those who chose to hurl themselves in the water rather than return home to face their parents.  Now their ghosts were here forever, mourning by the banks of the lake.” (p. 82)

communist dolls for sale near houhai lake

communist dolls for sale near houhai lake

One street back from the lakeside street are multitudes of shops filled with tea cups, pots and teas, journals and bookmarks, scarves and lanterns, clothes, Chinese masks, cushions, Buddhas, little Mao dolls in Communist clothing, shoes, traditional clothing, Chinese artwork & scrolls… too many desirable things!

our rooftop lunch place

our rooftop lunch place

We have a light lunch on a rooftop cafe where the service is atrocious; after, some of the girls take off to paddle-boat around the lake.  Suzanne and I go on a shopping spree.  This is the kind of shopping I enjoy, in shops where I can browse and find beautiful things, not necessarily things that I NEED, but things that will add beauty to my life, to my living space, things that will make me smile.  I buy a lantern, several scarves, a ring, a tea-cup with a ceramic insert punched with holes where you can steep the tea.  Not much, but these few things make me happy.

bicycles at houhai lake

bicycles at houhai lake

Suzanne and I wander around the lake.  It is so lovely, with a cool breeze sweeping the weeping willows on the lake’s edge, like soft woolen fringe on a Nordic sweater.  The lake is filled with dancing points of light, effervescent.  We take our time, meander and wander, and finally stop at a lakeside cafe ~ AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER! ~ where there is a Chinese girl playing folksy guitar tunes.  Between the two of us, we hardly have any money remaining, and I have just enough to get one beer.  It is so relaxing here, I think we could sit here indefinitely.  But we are due to meet up with some of the other girls, so we can’t linger long enough.

on the other side of houhai lake

on the other side of houhai lake

When we meet them, we split up to go into two taxis to Wangfujing Food Street.  We get separated from the other girls and never find them at the food street.  There, we check out all the bizarre foods: starfish, squid, octopus, giant prawns, sea cucumbers, scorpions on sticks, sea horses, snake, legs of lamb, silkworms, and some kind of drink with volcanic smoke erupting from it.  We see giant crickets, fruits on sticks, and the typical Chinese fare of dumplings and stir-fry.  I take a picture of a brave girl eating silkworms, but I am too afraid to try anything myself.  Yes, admittedly, I’m a wimp.  Besides, at this point Suzanne and I barely have enough money for the taxi back to our hotel.

the AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER outdoor cafe with live music along the lake

the AUTHENTIC MEXICAN BEER outdoor cafe with live music along the lake

At the end of the food street, we come to the modern and high-class shopping district, Wangfujing Dajie, which has a huge glitzy mall full of designer shops.  The best find for me is the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where I browse and find the Nicole Mones book and Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua.  I actually find too many books I want and since I’ve been starved for an English bookstore since I arrived in Korea, I could be happy to stay here all night.  But again, since we are short on cash, we figure we better take the taxi back to the hotel.

starfish for sale

starfish for sale

We catch a taxi and we have exactly 39 yuan between us.  I have 34 and Suzanne has 5.  The ride to our hotel is a long and convoluted one and we watch the meter carefully, nervously wondering if the taxi driver is taking us on a wild goose chase.  Finally, as the meter approaches 34 yuan, we pull into the entrance to the Holiday Inn Lido.  We escape the taxi with 5 yuan in our possession.

scorpions, anyone?

scorpions, anyone?

I am tired as we’ve been on the go all day, so I decide to get comfortable and relax and read.  Suzanne takes off to hang out with her friends.  I am back to 19th century China, engrossed in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  Our last night in China, I’m exhausted but happy to have come here. I have found a multi-layered culture of incredible richness and depth and am disappointed that I have to leave tomorrow morning, after just four days in Beijing.  I’m left wanting more.  I’ll have to figure out another time I can get back to China to explore the hinterlands and the other cities, like Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Hmmm… When (& HOW) can I do this?  A dilemma.

wangfujing food street

wangfujing food street

Categories: A Cup of Light, Beijing, China, Chinese food, Drum Tower, Houhai, hutongs, Nicole Mones, tea ceremony, Wangfujing Dajie, Wangfujing Street | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

the journey, “moon fresh” jerry, the temple of heaven & an acrobatic extravaganza

Tuesday, September 21: My South African friend Suzanne & I wake up in my apartment at 5:00 a.m. to begin our journey to Beijing.  Since she lives in Seongju, where we both teach English, and since there are no buses from Seongju to Daegu so early in the morning, she stayed Monday night in my apartment.  We leave my apartment at 6 a.m., rolling our suitcases the 5 blocks to the Keimyung University subway stop, then arrive at Dongdaegu around 7 a.m., just in time to eat some hamburgers at Lotteria before we catch our bus (waffles aren’t available until after lunch, but they DO serve hamburgers for breakfast!).  We take the 7:20 bus to Gimhae Airport in Busan, where we are to meet with the Kangsan Travel tour group at 10:30.  We have a lot of time to kill, but a week earlier when we had tried to buy bus tickets for 9 am, they were all sold out because of the Chuseok vacation in Korea.  We figure we will get to Busan, find a Starbucks, and have a leisurely coffee before our meeting.

having a coffee at starbucks

having a coffee at starbucks

After coffee, we head downstairs to meet the tour group at Gate 1.  I don’t know what I expected, but I am surprised that the group is mainly EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers, along with a couple of Mexican ladies who teach Spanish at a university in Busan.  Apparently there are to be 19 of us in this group; however, we will meet up with an additional number of travelers from Seoul in Beijing, for a total of 33 of us!  I am not happy about this situation, to say the least.  First, we had been told there would be around 20 people on the tour.  I also expected a mix of people of different ages from different professions.  Why I expected this, I don’t know!  Foolishness I guess.  But since Kangsan’s tour is an English-speaking tour out of Korea, who else would be there but English teachers?  American military guys would be practically the only other option.  Once again, I feel out-of-place, being the only “older” person in this group.

the Air China plane

the Air China plane

I am reminded that I don’t fit in by two South African girls, Trushan and Gillian, who immediately start talking to Suzanne, telling her they “researched her” on Facebook when they saw her South African name and they couldn’t wait to meet her.  They all start talking about their common background.  Trushan seems fun and cute and bubbly, the other, Gillian, rubs me the wrong way immediately. The one totally ignores me as if I am invisible.  I determine in my mind at this point that I will give Suzanne plenty of space so she can hang out with them as much as she likes; I will not care to hang out with these two girls (although I like Suzanne very much) and so I will just keep to myself.   If Suzanne wants to hang out with me, I’m happy to have her do so, but I am not going to intrude on her space in case she wants to be with these fellow South Africans.  We have arranged to share a room together, but I really don’t want her to feel tied to me because of this.  I feel that this creates an awkward situation from the start.  This is why I hate traveling in groups!

suzanne & me on the plane

suzanne & me on the plane

We embark on a small Air China plane.  It’s a turbulent flight and makes me a little more nervous than usual.  Lately, I’ve been very relaxed flying, rarely feeling any fear, but this smaller plane is a little on the rough side.

Beijing Capital International Airport looks brand-spanking new, bright and airy (though it opened officially over 10 years ago on October 1, 1999 to mark the 50 year anniversary of Chinese Communist rule).  We take numerous moving walkways and a tram to get to the main terminal, where we are greeted by red welcome signs in multitudes of foreign languages.  It’s all very modern and impressive!  Everything moves quickly and when we are through immigration, we meet our Manchurian tour guide who calls himself the English name of “Jerry.”  His real name is Hao Yuashen, which means “Moon Fresh.”  The Hao is his family name, which appears in typical Chinese fashion of last name first.

people movers

people movers

The bus already has the Seoul group on board; we settle in and Jerry begins to talk.  He asks us if we know how to say hello in Chinese.  Most of us answer “Ni hao” but he tells us that this is a formal greeting not really used by the locals.  He says they mainly say “Tru la ma?” which is translated exactly to mean “Have you eaten yet?” but really means something similar to “How are you?”  The answer is “Tru laup” which means, “Yes, I have,” or “I’m fine.”  He emphasizes too many times to count that this greeting can be used at any time of day under any circumstances, EXCEPT when someone is coming out of the toilet!

welcome to foreigners in many languages at Beijing Airport

welcome to foreigners in many languages at Beijing Airport

He tells us other common words: Shia-Shia (xiexie) is thank you, and Bu is NoNo, thanks is Bua shia (not Bullshit, he emphasizes!).  Hao is good, and ding ding hao is very good.  This is Jerry language.  I can’t find this language in the phrasebook I have. 🙂  Jerry also informs us that beginning tomorrow is the 3-day Mooncake Festival in China, which is much like the harvest festival of Chuseok in Korea.  He warns that because of this, the traffic in Beijing will be horrendous, that usually there are traffic controls in Beijing, but there will be no traffic controls during the holiday.  All I can think of is the 10-day traffic jam that was in the news just one month ago.

don't say tru la ma when someone is coming out of the toilet!

don’t say tru la ma when someone is coming out of the toilet!

The Mooncake Festival is one of the few important national holidays in China, along with Chinese New Year and Winter Solstice.  Farmers celebrate the end of the harvesting season at this time and Chinese friends and families gather to eat mooncakes and pomelos under the bright mid-autumn harvest moon.  Jerry says a mooncake has “all the sweety things in the filling.”  He tells us of other festivals such as the Spring Festival and the Chinese New Year (which has customary fireworks and firecrackers;  if one is lucky enough to eat a dumpling with a coin in it, he or she is guaranteed good fortune in the year ahead).  He tells us of the Bamboo Rice Festival where they put rice and dates in bamboo leaves.  This festival is to celebrate a minister who didn’t surrender to his enemies, but instead threw himself into the river to kill himself.  People threw bamboo rice into the river so the fish would eat that instead of the minister’s body.  “Today,” says Jerry, “we only put the rice in our mouths.”

a fancy building that hasn't been completed b/c it burned partially during construction

a fancy building that hasn’t been completed b/c it burned partially during construction

He tells us also about the Dragon Boat Racing Festival (which consists of eating rice dumplings, drinking wine and racing dragon boats) and the Lion Dance Festival.  He says most Chinese people have no religion, that Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion and that Taoism is the local religion in China.

the city moat

the city moat

I look out the window of the bus as we drive through Beijing.  It is ultra-modern, filled with skyscrapers, gleaming metal and glass, with bursts of red everywhere.  We pass over a rather narrow canal and Jerry tells us that in ancient times this was the city moat that separated the inner and outer city.  He says we can see examples of the city gates in the famous movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

gleaming beijing

gleaming beijing

I look at the cars and see everything: Focus, Elantra, Volkswagen, Jag, Hyundai, Honda CRV and Accord.  This is as modern a city as anything I have ever seen, much to my surprise.  I think I was expecting to see a city full of traditional Chinese villages, called hutongs, but apparently thousands of these villages have been razed to make way for the modern skyscrapers.  I was also expecting total chaos in the streets of Beijing, but in the places I go, I never see this.

Jerry, our Manchurian tour guide

Jerry, our Manchurian tour guide

Jerry tells us that there are 55 minority groups in China and 1 majority group, the Han people.  Of China’s 1.4 billion people, 80% consist of the Hans.  Other sources say the Han people make up 92% of China’s population and 20% of the global population, making it by most definitions the largest single ethnic group in the world.  The name Han comes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), which succeeded the short-lived Qin Dynasty that united China.

He also informs us that Mandarin Chinese is spoken in Beijing, while Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong.  Beijing means “north capital.”  In 1421, the emperor moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Yanjing means “mountain capital;” there you can find the terra-cotta warriors.  He says there is only one beer in China, Yanjing Beer, but Chingdao beer is popular in the south.

me at the temple of heaven

me at the temple of heaven

Jerry tells us that there are two dreams for most visitors to Beijing: 1) To get a picture of Tiananmen Square; and 2) to taste Peking Duck, which we will do tonight at dinner.  He also tells us that it is very dry here in Beijing so we should “be sure to drink plenty of waters.”

The Temple of Heaven is our first stop and Jerry tells us it was built as a show of power and not a religious temple.  The main temple building is the three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, made entirely of wood without a single nail.  The circular structure sits on top of a 3-tiered marble terrace, topped by 3 blue-tiled roofs.  Four pillars, representing the 4 seasons, support the vault, and 12 outer pillars represent the 12 months.    The temple was begun during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (who also founded the Forbidden City) and was completed in 1420. Though the temple was destroyed by lightning in 1889, it was completely rebuilt true to its original Ming design.

the hall of prayer for good harvests

the hall of prayer for good harvests

The building is quite beautiful and seems freshly painted in bright colors of royal blue, green, yellow, & red.  It sits in an area where there are no gardens though, just vast floors of concrete; this lack of greenery detracts from its beauty in my opinion.

The temple represents the prime meeting point of heaven and earth.  Heaven was seen as round and earth as square; thus the round temples and altars stand on square bases.  The Son of Heaven was considered to be the emperor; he was the intermediary between heaven and earth. The emperor prayed here for good harvests, after making animal sacrifices, during the winter solstice each year.  Commoners were forbidden to see this royal procession to the temple and were forced to stay locked in their homes.

the 3-tiered marble base with the 3-tiered temple on top

the 3-tiered marble base with the 3-tiered temple on top

We wander around the Temple and take pictures, and then we leave through a long rectangular park with emerald-green grass where Chinese people are involved in playing card games, playing strange musical instruments that look like miniature pipe organs, or kicking little bird-like things that looks like badminton shuttlecocks.

a man plays an intriguing instrument

a man plays an intriguing instrument

After the Temple of Heaven, we go straightaway to have a dinner of Peking Duck.  This dish has been served since the imperial era in China and is prized for the duck’s thin crispy skin, which is sliced in front of diners by the chef.  It’s eaten wrapped in steamed pancakes along with scallions and hoisin sauce.

the restaurant where we have dinner

the restaurant where we have dinner

In addition to the duck, we are served numerous other Chinese dishes on a lazy susan; these dishes are similar to dishes I have tasted in Chinese restaurants in the U.S. for my entire life.  After months of eating Korean food,  I am thrilled and eat as much as I can….it’s such a treat. 🙂

one of our delectable dishes

one of our delectable dishes

I also have some Yanjing Beer, the “only beer in China.”

me, suzanne & yanjing beer

me, suzanne & yanjing beer

We then head to an acrobatic show at the Chaoyang Theatre.  We treat ourselves to Magnum ice creams and drinks, which to our surprise we are allowed to take into the theater.

Chaoyang Theater

Chaoyang Theater

The show is an amazing extravaganza of everything from jujitsu and martial arts, balancing Pagala bowls, juggling porcelain urns, spinning plates, demonstrating head skills on stacked chairs, bicycle feats and then an ending ceremony with fanciful and spectacular costumes.

a lively dance

a lively dance

the crazy bicycle wheel contraption

the crazy bicycle wheel contraption

One of my favorite acts involves this huge metal contraption that looks like two huge bicycle wheels; two acrobats walk inside the wheels (like those in a hamster cage) and even walk on the outside of the wheels as the wheels rotate around and around.  Sometimes the acrobats, when they are at death-defying heights, attach a rope to a belt to break their falls, but on this bicycle wheel contraption, even when walking on the outer edge of the wheel, the acrobat wears nothing to break his fall!  In other feats, the acrobats twist into unimaginable shapes and support weight, both of their own bodies and of their fellow performers, that seems impossible.

spectacular costumes at the ending ceremony

spectacular costumes at the ending ceremony

Another whimsical and captivating act is that of these pink-clad girls balancing these plates on sticks that look like lily pads and dancing all over the place.  Lights in the pattern of flowers and stars and curlicues dance on the floor under the girls’ feet.  So lovely.

girls with lotus flowers

girls with lotus flowers

Apparently, professional acrobats have existed in China for 2,000 years, and students begin training at age 5 in the main training school, Wu Qiao in Hebei province.  This show is truly amazing and of such a high professional quality, including the music, lighting effects, and the scenery.  I am bowled over!

another amazing acrobat

another amazing acrobat

We finally go check in at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Lido.  It’s a beautiful hotel, and we each have huge double beds with all white bedding, including a fluffy comforter.  It’s like sleeping on a cotton candy cloud….

nighttime in Beijing

nighttime in Beijing

Categories: Beijing, Beijing Capital International Airport, Chaoyang Theater, China, Chinese food, Chuseok, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Mooncake Festival, Peking Duck, South Korea, Temple of Heaven | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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