Thursday, December 31, 2009

on returning

Well, I've returned home from the East, although it doesn't feel much like home with the Shires in Wisconsin and my heart in China. What a trip! I felt very relaxed and peaceful while I was there, but the time was so full that I haven't had time to process everything yet. It felt so natural to be there. All of Matt's students and colleagues welcomed me as if I was a long lost friend (or celebrity in the case of some of the students). I think it's safe to say that this has been the most special and memorable December of my life. As long as the flights were and as frustrating as the security trying to re-enter America was and as heartrending as it was to say goodbye to Matt again, I would happily do it all over again. Many times.

I crossed the Pacific, reunited with Matt, explored Xiaogan, learned to talk a bit slower so the Chinese students (and leaders) could understand me, met all of Matt's students and colleagues, introduced Matt's roommate, Will (from Cameroon), to A Charlie Brown Christmas, learned how to use chopsticks, began to appreciate drinking hot water, became adjusted to the lack of heaters everywhere, rode an overnight train for the first time, saw all of the sights in Beijing, saw my second of the Seven Wonders of the World (the first was the Colosseum, which I didn't actually visit, just drove past, so it doesn't really count), watched LOTR, dodged traffic, squatty-pottied, learned how to make applesauce, laughed really hard a lot, schmoozed with the Chairman of the college and the mayor of Xiaogan, sang karaoke, experienced a Cameroon style Christmas dinner party, took taxis, climbed six flights of stairs at least two times a day, watched Matt in action teaching his classes, sang in front of many students and leaders of Xiaogan, slid down an enormous Alpine slide, fell in love with tangcu liji (糖醋鸡 - sweet & sour chicken), ate a lot of rice and noodles, gained a (small) appreciation for eggplant, traversed a dark and dusty attic multiple times daily, got used to being stared at and having pictures taken of me by strangers wherever I went, sent a heart-shaped Chinese lantern into the night sky with Matt and his students from the roof of his apartment, celebrated New Year's Eve (observed), stood under the mistletoe, learned several Chinese phrases, listened to fireworks everyday, and so much more.

Stay tuned for the promised blog on fancy-pants dinners and karaoke, as well as a few other thoughts. For pictures of the trip, check out my facebook in the days to come as I've run out of picture space on this blog.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Last Thursday night Matt & I boarded a high-speed overnight train to Beijing. We had "hard sleeper" tickets - which basically means a not very soft bed. We were the two bottom bunks in a room with six beds (stacked three high). It was actually fairly cozy and I slept almost the entire way there, lulled into sleep by the rocking train. Nine and a half hours later, at 7am, we stepped out into the freezing Beijing air to find our tour guide.

There's so much I could say about this trip, but a picture is worth a thousand words (or so they say), so I'll keep my writing short and post pictures to facebook after I've returned to the states.

Day 1 we visited:
*Starbucks!: The Forbidden City didn't open until 8:30, so we headed over to a Starbucks so we could use a non-moving bathroom that boasted Western toilets (but no toilet paper:( ) and sinks for brushing teeth and, of course, get coffee and pastries. Yum!

* Tiananmen Square: So vast! The square is enormous - because of this, the wind dominates and, let me just tell you, BRRRR!!!!! My toes and fingers, though bundled, were turned to ice moments after exiting our warm car.

* The Forbidden City: So elaborate and huge! There are 9,999.5 rooms in this city. We were frozen to the bone, and I looked like a baboushka with my scarf wrapped intricately around my head and over my nose and mouth, but it was very intriguing.

*Hutong district (with the Drum & Bell Towers): I LOVED this area!! So quaint and cozy (if it wasn't so ^*@$!#% cold). We rode in a rickshaw and then wandering the streets and popped into a few shops to look and buy chocolate (yum).

*Silk factory: Okay, so we went to two of these. It was definitely more interesting the first time.

Day 2 we visited:
*The Great Wall: Ugh!! Ridiculous. I don't know how to describe what it's like to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which is also the only remaining Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. None of my pictures capture the scope sufficiently. It also boasted the most ridiculously lengthed alpine slide ever.

*Jade factory: Apparently the Chinese tradition was for a man to give his bride a jade bracelet for a wedding present (she gave him a necklace with jade on it). These are your typical looking thick round bangles (bracelets) that little girls wear in America. When the salesman doing the demonstration wanted to put one on my wrist, I laughed at him and said "You'll need a much bigger bracelet - pull out the biggest one right now - I have big hands, even for an American woman." He didn't believe me and tried the biggest one in his case and then looked at me with incredulous eyes and frantically called his assistant to search for the biggest bangle in the room. They did find one that fit, which I didn't buy due to it's 2,000 dollar (yes, in U.S.) price.

*Ming Tomb: So fun. Sunday & Friday Matt & I had a private tour with a lovely young Chinese woman named Lucy, but today (Saturday) we were on a group tour. There were only six of us in the tour: Matt & I (Americans), George & Charles (recent high school graduates from South Africa - Charles is Chinese, but has grown up in South Africa) and another couple, Paulric (Irish, teaches English in Korea) and Morgy (his Mongolian girlfriend). By the time we got to the tomb, we were all in a great mood from the fantastic all-you-can-eat meal we had at the Jade factory (and eat-all-we-could we did!). We laughed almost the entire time at the tomb. Our lovely tour guide, Erin, kept telling jokes in a very dry tone and before we had time to realize she was joking, she would say, "I'm just kidding." Man, humor really is all about the timing. :)

*Silk factory #2: Luckily they had a coffee shop here, so Matt and I enjoyed espresso.

*Kung Fu show: Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I got so many ideas for the next play I do - especially if it's a musical. They used fabric and lighting and fog machines and bubble machines like I've never seen before. Very tasteful, but fittingly extravagant. The acrobatics and kung fu in this play were simply out of this world. Matt & I were both utterly awed.

Day 3 we visited:
*The Temple of Heaven: I absolutely fell in love with this place. It was gorgeous and very peaceful and simply packed with Chinese people spending their Sunday morning playing cards and dancing and hackey-sacking and singing into microphones and playing accordions and practicing calligraphy with water on the cold stone pathways, etc. I wanted to join in all of the festivities.

*Summer Palace: It's had to say if I loved this more or the same as the Temple of Heaven. It was breath-taking. The Palace sits right by a lake, which is currently frozen, so there were people walking across it (of course we went out on the water and took pictures). There were also many wintery Willow trees (my favorite tree) and this long winding path with trees that follows the edge of the lake. So picturesque.

*Dr. Tea (a tea house): Such fun. We had a demonstration where we tried four different teas and then actually purchased some of their tea (it was so good! and I'm normally not a tea drinker).

*Pearl Market: for shopping galore, barter-style! We were very grateful for Lucy here because she didn't let anyone rip us off, I'm positive we got much better deals than we would have without her.

Then we headed to the train station, had McDonalds and got on our train back "home" to Xiaogan.
Stayed tuned for stories about fancy-pants dinners and karaoke in Xiaogan...

Monday, December 21, 2009

a shorter tale of Chinese intrigues

Four more quick thoughts on my experience here in China:

1. Loogies. If you talk a walk through a city in China, it probably won't take too long before you'll hear, incredibly close behind you, the distinct sounds of someone loudly and proudly hocking a big fat loogie. No shame. Typically this is an older Chinese man or woman, not those of younger generations. They'll hock a loogie on the street corner right next to you and then wait patiently and unabashedly for the light to change so they can cross the street. As I walked through the serene paths that wind around the Temple of Heaven yesterday, I found myself watching my step closely, as I would do if I were walking through the grass of a dog park, careful not to step in anything too disturbing.

2. Door flaps. You know those big, thick plastic door flaps that hang in front of big freezers in a store? Kind of like giant flat plastic fringe? This seems to be the norm in many stores and restaurants in China. Instead of doors or as an added measure against the cold with a door. I'm not a huge fan of this. It may be novel (certainly it is), but I'm not a huge fan of getting slapped around by big, dirty, heavy plastic flaps every time I want to step into a store from out of the cold.

3. Train squattys. I already mentioned the joy of the squatty potty, and however wonderful it may be on it's own, that sentiment is greatly increased when I need to use one on a high-speed train. Matt & I took a high-speed train into Beijing for the weekend (stories to come) and the toilets were definitely not in the traditional Western style, but on a nine and a half hour trip, one must go whether they desire to or not. So I did. But trains sway when they move. And they sway a lot when they travel extra fast. And my body moves against the trains motion, while the squatty moves with the train. It was almost like playing a video game, trying to keep everything as clean as possible while dealing with uncontrollable motion. I succeeded, but not without a considerable amount of steeling my soul first.

4. Reese Witherspoon. No, I did not see her in Beijing. However, our lovely tour guide, Lucy, after spending the morning at Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City with Matt & I, took us to lunch. While we were there, she kept staring at me. This is not uncommon, so I've begun to get used to it. Eventually she told me that I reminded her of a Hollywood star. I was all ready to hear Drew Barrymore as my face' sake. But she began to describe the plot line of Legally Blonde and I realized she thought I looked like none other than Reese Witherspoon. This is a new one for me. Flattering. However, please please please somebody slap me silly if you ever catch me wearing pink from head to toe while toting a tiny dog in a matching outfit. I also had a silk factory saleswoman inform me that I have "charming big eyes." Sweet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

more thoughts on being in China

Welcome back to more "Intriguing Cultural Ponderings with Joann."
Today we will be discussing many things that pique my musings.

*Warning: this post is neither short nor well-organized. Tough luck.
Here we go...

1. Americans are very frugal with their physical affection. Those of you who have traveled abroad know that it is a common thing to see friends and neighbors walking around with arms linked and hands held. China is no different. It is quite usual to see two people sharing a scooter or umbrella. It doesn't matter their gender or age or length of time they've known each other. These people are cozy. A few nights ago I was at a gathering with the foreign language teachers and some of the students, a Chinese student was introduced to me, Sherie. She sat down next to me and offered her hand. I took it, expected a hand shake or gentle squeeze, but she simply held onto it with both of her hands, sitting there smiling at me for a good five minutes. I also had a student walk out of one of Matt's classes with me - I was holding Matt's hand on my left, and she had her hand tucked into my right arm. Very cozy.

2. Noodles for breakfast. This is common. Think "Elf", but without the syrup and marshmallows and chocolate poptarts. Replace those with spicy sauces and ginger herbs. I did not know this was a common breakfast food until my second morning here when my lovely roommate, Ann (an English teacher from the Philippines), brought me a cup of noodles with peanut sauce and corn from a street vendor. I thanked her, but was very confused about why she brought me a savory lunch or dinner dish at 10am. When Matt arrived a few minutes later I explained the situation with a quizzical brow, and he explained how they do breakfast here. I was grateful, but they still didn't sound very good while I was in the middle of drinking my Maxwell House instant coffee (yes, that's right - 400,000 people and no Starbucks - incidentally, the instant coffee isn't all that bad - as long as it isn't Foldgers).

3. Chicken is more of an afterthought in the majority of the dishes I’ve eaten here thus far. I’m used to Panda Express or even sit-down Chinese restaurants where there’s meat and rice (or chow mein) aplenty. But when ordering the Kung Pow Chicken dish here, it’s more of a treasure hunt to locate chicken in the towering chunks of cucumber. This is not a complaint – just an observation.
*Note: I previously mentioned hot dogs in the Kung Pow Chicken here. This is true, but not at every restaurant. The place Matt normally goes refrains from hot dog indulgence.

4. I am happy to say that I am well on my way to mastering the art of chopsticks. I failed miserably at chopstick usage when in Singapore, so I was a bit worried for myself here where Western utensils are not readily found when eating out. Now that I am confident I can get some food to my mouth, I enjoying the process so much that I may start using them when eating Chinese food in America.

5. Hands down the most common reaction I get when people meet me is some variation of: "You are so beautiful." Sometimes they tell Matt instead of me. I heard about this phenomena from Matt (he gets “handsome” a lot), but was unprepared for the frequency of this sentiment. They are so open with their compliments. I was definitely taken aback the first few times people said “She is so beautiful” instead of “Hello. Nice to meet you.” The Chinese people love white skin. The whiter the better. In that regard, I am definitely gorgeous with my Scandinavian, indoor-loving skin. Sometimes they also mean that they love my clothes. They give this type of compliment to nearly every American foreigner in their midst. When I returned the compliment to one student, she giggled profusely and scampered away with her friend – she almost looked like she was going to cry (with happiness, I should think).

6. For those unaware, I have a brother who teaches in Singapore and my mother and I went to visit him and his family a little over two years ago. I have not seen a ton of similarities between Singapore and Xiaogan, except in the apartments. They are very Singapore-esque. The floors are tile and there are big open windows on both sides of the apartment. I won’t go into details, because most of you haven’t been in either a Singaporean or a Chinese apartment. Just trust me, there is nostalgia for me when I walk through the apartments here.

7. Just like Singaporean apartments, there is little in the way of controlling the air temperature with the exception of the bedrooms. Currently it’s pretty cold here, which means it’s cold everywhere. There are space heaters in smaller bedrooms, and a nice big heater in Matt’s bedroom, but the living spaces are unheated. Brrr! Especially with tiled and cement floors. The classrooms are not heated (or air conditioned when it gets hot) either. Everyone stays pretty bundled and I have found myself wishing, for possibly the first time in my life, that I had some really thick soled shoes to compensate for the cold seeping up through the floors into my feet and upward to chill my entire body. Fortunately I love the cold much more than the heat, and I can warm up after returning from classes or walking to get food.

8. Ooh! This is fun: the shower is one with the bathroom. There is a wide-open space on the far end of the bathroom with a drain in the middle, but there is no step down and the floor isn’t noticeably sloped, nor is there a shower curtain (in my apartment). So when you take a shower, everything gets wet. Entertaining to be sure. I am very grateful for the hot water – the shower is the only place in the apartments that has hot water. I cringe every time I need to wash my hands. I will not be taking warm faucet water for granted anytime soon.

9. Not surprising to people who have traveled to Asia, squatty pottys are the norm. And you must bring your own toilet paper. Luckily the apartments that the foreigners stay in have Western toilets, still, it has been an adventure. The toilet got clogged at the apartment I’m staying in, so I had to use the hole on the floor instead. Luckily that was resolved within 24 hours. I guess it was nice in a way though; I love new experiences, but I wasn’t about to use the squatty of my own accord – I had to be forced by dire necessity.

10. Ever heard the expression “It’s always New Year’s in China”? That’s probably because it doesn’t exist – but it should! Seriously, there are ALWAYS fireworks going off. My first morning here I woke to fireworks close to the apartment at 7am on a Saturday. Apparently they use them for funerals or birthdays or anniversaries or special events or mediocre events or to scare away bad spirits or just for the fun of it. I appreciate this about the Chinese. They may be restricted in many areas that Americans are not, but they can shoot off fireworks whenever they want. Lucky. I wish I could wake up at 7am every Saturday to shoot off fireworks of weekend ecstasy.

11. At least twice a day, me and my Wesley (aka Matt) make our way through the Princess-Bride-fire-swamp-cave-attic-thing that separates his apartment from Dorothy & Ann’s (aka mine). Let’s simply say that it’s cold, dark, coated in at least a quarter inch of dust, and I’ve seen at least two bats flitting around at night. I feel like a bold adventuress with her dashing hero as we duck under thick wires and step over dusty partial walls, our way lit solely by the light of a cell phone. Fun. Creepy. Gross. Smelly. Inspiring.

12. These people are unafraid to express themselves. They gasp and giggle and shriek and exclaim at nearly every conceivable instance. I love it. It reminds me a bit of my roommates from Ranch Village Drive in Bend – except an entire country full of them and all speaking a different language (which always makes things more exciting for me). So if I come home with more expression than I left, you will all know why. It’s very contagious.

13. Forearm-water-wing-looking-things are common attire here. The girls here wear these thin raincoat material bags, with elastic on both sides, over the forearms of their coat sleeves. Many times these are decorated with Hello Kitty or animated cats. I thought they were, bizarrely, for warmth at first, but found out today that they are to keep coat sleeves clean. Many I’ll start sporting them.

14. Related to number 5, I am now the image of America in many young Chinese students phones and cameras. I often turn around to see that there are several people unabashedly pointing cameras and phones at me. So I grin and try not to blink. There are VERY few foreigners here in Xiaogan. Matt is probably the only white man in the city of 400,000 people and I am currently one of four white females here. This does not give you all permission to follow me around like paparazzi when I’ve returned.

15. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that the students are impressed with my pronunciation when I repeat something they say. Of course, I have no idea what I just said, but apparently I said it very well. In the past, people have said this of me when I’m repeating Spanish or French as well. I am inspired to rekindle my French language learning upon returning home. I’ve always wanted to be fluent in a second language, but I’ve never been disciplined enough to put in the work necessary. Thank you, China, for so inspiring me.

16. Two parting words: “baby pants.” They do not joke around about bundling their children here. They look like puffy stars waddling around; arms stuck straight out and legs splayed to allow room for several inches of padding around each little thigh. Incredibly adorable. The one flaw I’ve seen with this system of protecting the young from the elements, is in their pants. Think hospital gown. The pants are made completely split at the seam from the waistband to the middle of the thighs on the backside. Sure, this allows the children to squat whenever they want to relieve themselves, but it also makes for pretty cold little tushies.

If you made it this far, please leave me a comment so I can congratulate you. Maybe I’ll even set a firework off in your name.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Xiaogan, Hubei, P.R. China

I have arrived!

For those of you behind the times, I am currently in China (until December 29th). For those of you REALLY behind the times, I'm here visiting my boyfriend, Matt Boswell, who is here teaching English at a university until July.

I can't update my facebook from here due to government regulated firewalls. Nor can I upload pictures. But, blast it all, I can post a word-only blog if I want to!

My main purpose in this post will be to inform my readers of some intriguing things I've witnessed and/or experienced here in China:

1. Chinese people do not mess around in crowds. They do not queue. They do not wait their turn. They do not watch where they are walking, or at least they don't care if their path is about to collide with someone else's. They will fill the 12 inch space that you left in between yourself and the baggage claim at the airport. They will not be ashamed about these things. They will not move out of your way, no matter how many suitcases you are lugging about. But they also don't seem to mind this behavior from others. While I was baffled and a touch annoyed at the man who shoved in front of me as I was trying to get on an escalator, the Chinese man right next to me couldn't care less that someone else had cut in line. It is simply normal behavior. When exiting the airplane in Beijing, and again in Wuhan, I knew that I would have to shove my way into the aisle, because no one was going to notice my pleading eyes and anxious sighs clearly indicating my desire to leave the seat I'd been sitting in for over eleven hours.

2. When ordering Kung Pow chicken at a restaurant in China, be prepared to receive it with chunks of hot dog.

3. I am not joking about number 2.

4. Everywhere you go, be it a restaurant, a speech contest or a barber shop, they will hand you tiny plastic cups filled with hot water. We're talking 3-4 ounces of water that makes the cups lose their shape and form more to your fingers. I'll confess that the idea of drinking hot, or even warm, water does not appeal to me at all. However, I will also confess that I am falling in love with a hot cup of water on a frigid December afternoon. I probably won't make a habit out of drinking said hot water in plastic cups when I return home, but I may do so out of a respectable mug.

All for now. Tune in at some later bat-time on the same bat-channel for more updates on my Chinese adventures.