Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.

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Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.

Letters From China (First Month 2007)

As September 2007 continued I began to find my feet in China, getting the swing of things in the classroom and learning to navigate Beijing on my own. These letters include my trips into town, my adventures in coffee, my first bout of homesickness (maybe ever), and some glimpses into the lives of my Chinese students.


Sep 13, 2007 at 10:08pm

Sooo, today was kinda interesting. It started off with early morning downpours, and me having no umbrella. By the time I got to class I was totally soaked. Not too bad tho, it cleaned out the air a bit and cooled down a lot.

The power went out this afternoon.

And… drumroll please… I found a place that serves COFFEE here in Yanjiao! It took me a while to get across that I just wanted black coffee, since it was like a dessert shop and they did mochas and cappuccinos and the like, but in the end, I did get a real cup of coffee… not great, but real. I still intend to try to get some beans in the city so I can make my own, but it is nice to know there’s somewhere I can go nearby.

Sep 14, 2007 at 7:34pm

I’m sitting here grading homework, and I want to share what one of my students wrote. The assignment was to describe a person.

“When I am happy, I like a person who is of medium build, a little chubby. I think she is very optimistic, stoic and conservative. She likes reading, listening to music and so on. Sometimes she would write a very good passage.

But when I am sad, very sad, I begin to hate her. I think she is very pessimistic, stingy and grumpy. She always does something wrong which made a lot of person even her friends misunderstood her and dislike her.

I eagerly hope she can do everything carefully and become excellent. Because that person is me.”

The English is a little rough, but I think the message is amazing, so I had to share.

Sep 15, 2007 at 11:25pm

Today I finally felt well enough to do some exploring. We decided to go into Beijing. The bus ride takes about 40 minutes, but its reasonably comfortable, and really cheap, about 5 yuan¹ as opposed to say a taxi which would cost over 100. This lets us out at Dawanglu. There we discovered a Super Walmart center and a guy in a penguin suit.

After Walmart, where I was able to find actual coffee, though its very finely ground and a little acidic for my tastes (I may however have over-brewed it, due to its completely wrong grind for a french press, and since I have a whole bunch, I’ll keep trying to get the timing right), we got on the subway (3 yuan) http://www.urbanrail.net/as/beij/beijing.htm and went on the red line (see the link for a map²) from Dawanglu to Xidan where we found a huge mall and some interesting architecture.

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This mall looks a little like an American mall, but of course there’s lots of room for bargaining. We also found a Starbucks where I was able to purchase the aforementioned french press. We didn’t stay long because one of the guys was looking for a winter coat and we didn’t see many clothing stores there, but I want to go back and explore more… one of the nicest things about it was that no one was trying to sell me stuff actively, and later I’ll explain why that’s so nice³.

We then took the subway back to Yong’anli and the infamous Silk Market. The silk market is a huge multistory shopping complex made up of hundreds of stalls selling goods.

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Its a heavy bargaining experience. Erwin found a jacket he liked and argued the price from 2300 to 450 (300usd to 60). While this market has plenty of nice stuff for cheap if you argue well, the sales girls are really grabby, literally, they kept grabbing my arm to stop me and try to drag me to look at their stuff. Not all were like this, but enough that it got on my nerves. I’m sure I’ll go shopping there myself when I need winter things, but its really a high impact shopping experience.

We stopped at a cafe to refresh ourselves before the long trek home. Kevin had a sort of duh experience today. His water supply† at home ran out like 2 days ago and for whatever reason a new jug never arrived, so he basically stopped drinking water, and of course today, he got pretty sick… he’s fine now, and its probably just as well we had to come home early, cause I am totally wiped out. In the end, we took the subway back to Dawanglu, then the bus back home. So I shall leave this post with the final picture from the window of our bus.

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¹ Chinese currency has a lot of names… I was not consistent in how I called it because the Chinese themselves are not. RMB, Yuan, and Kuai (remember back then it was 7.5 RMB to 1USD)

² That link doesn’t work. Try this one. TheBeijing subway has gotten SO much bigger since then. There were 4 active lines and they were building the 5th for the Olympics… today there are 15. But you can still see the red line on the map.

³ I did not ever explain that. In China (and oh so many places in the developing world) visiting (white) people are assumed to be richy richersons and someone always has a hand out or is trying to sell you something useless and overpriced. Often a simple “no thanks” in the local language is enough, but I’ve had people on the street grab my bags or even my arm before trying to get me to buy. It was very overwhelming before I learned how to deal with it.

†Do not drink the tap water. 

Sep 16, 2007 at 10:56pm

To paraphrase Rob, I finally hit the wall. It really hit me where I am and how long I’m going to be here, and the fact that I sat in my apartment today and couldn’t talk to any of you because you were all gone, just made it that much harder. Don’t get me wrong, I know it was Saturday night and all, but I went out to Beijing yesterday instead of chatting with ppl, and I’ve been kind of scarce on contact this last week anyway, and I keep looking at this board hoping someone will have put up something while I was asleep or away, and its happening less and less…

I realise you’re all going on with your lives and that I’m not as much a part of them as I was 3 weeks ago, and there’s a definite tendency for “out of sight out of mind” but when I was talking to you all, at least someone, every day, I wasn’t lonely, and I felt like I could DO this. But today, for the first time, I began to wonder if I really can.

So, I guess I’m just asking that you try not to let me be out of mind, just because I’m out of sight. I don’t think I can do this without your help, all of you. I’m gonna try to shift the Beijing outings to Sundays (your Saturdays), to make it easier. Google Talk has a free voice talk function that all you need is a cheap mic to use, and I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear your voices.

I’ve never really been “homesick” before, because having moved so much as a kid, I never really felt like I had a home, and when I left Memphis, I was only leaving a few people behind, and I could always just call them if I missed them. But I’m homesick now, for Seattle, and while I can’t be there, and you can’t be here, if we can meet out in Cyberspace its not as bad.

P.S. Its not really the city I’m homesick for, but the people who made it a home, the ability to walk down the street to hang out at Belinda’s or drive over the water to Toni’s or just hang out and shoot the breeze after game. The closest I can get to that here is talking online, and that I need more than coffee or pine scent or home-cooking. I think its important for me to be ok with the accommodations, food and entertainment that China has to offer, because trying to make my life here like Seattle not only defeats the purpose of being here, but just highlights the differences and reminds me how hard it is to bring that here. Things are just things, but people are irreplaceable.

Post by Ross on Sep 19, 2007 at 7:09am

Weeeeee’re off to see the Chairman, the most respectable Chairman of OZ!

We hear he has some wonderful Chi, if ever some Chi there waaaas!

If ever oh ever a respectable worker there was, the Chairman of OZ is one because. Because, because, because, because, becaaaaause!

Because of the glorious wealth and respect in common effort to the workers he does!(doo da da da dum da doom, da!)¹

¹Nearly everything here is something I wrote, but I just couldn’t leave this creative comment out.

Sep 19, 2007 at 6:11pm

As part of teaching conversational English, I give the kids¹ little activities to do. Today was a talk show, the topic of which was “teens and their parents”. While several of the skits were standard fare: “dad won’t let me date”, “mom treats me like a child” etc. One group had a fantastically Jerry Springer-like show.

It started out with the “mother” bursting into tears (real ham acting sobs) and relating the deep tragedy of her husband disappearing from their life when her daughter was only 6 and their mother/daughter relationship is now suffering.

The “daughter” then breaks in to tell her side, the relationship isn’t bad because the father left, its bad because she is a lesbian and her mother refuses to let her marry the woman she loves!

It further develops that, although she has become a lesbian because of her deep distrust and hatred for men (causing the male “host” to back up a bit), she truly loves the woman she is with.

The only un-Springer-like action is that after the psychologist has told the mother that her daughter’s sexual preference is a result of a combination of genetics and environment, and she must support her daughter (nice and liberal), the mother and daughter make up in another flood of hamitup tears.

The skit was funny and socially relevant and very creative. It really is amazing to watch these young people grow and change.

¹ “kids” = university students, ages 18-22

Sep 21, 2007 at 1:27pm

With my cold finally gone (well mostly) and the beautiful weather, I finally got off my butt and took some pictures of the campus. Be warned, there are a lot of them¹.

We begin our virtual tour today with an aerial view of campus in order to give you a big picture from which to put the details in perspective. I went to the ninth floor of a teaching building in the middle of campus and took pics starting from the south, moving west, north,  and east.

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Now you have the 180 aerial tour, lets move onto the ground. From the south view, you can see the zigzag looking bushes, the red potted flowers and the cactus garden.

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Next, we’ll take a look inside the class building from which I took the pics. First is the view of the building from the south, standing on the same road bordered by the zigzag bushes, then some classrooms and the stairwell.

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…a public toilet and some chalkboard art.

Next we shall move to the north, and see the basketball courts, the fantastic concrete pingpong tables and some more chalkboard art.

Now to the east, a sight not easily visible in the tall view because of trees, but nice nonetheless: A fountain (not currently flowing) and some student dorms.

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And as we move to the southeast, we find a lovey garden path and gazeebo.

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Interesting architecture, well sort of, I have no idea what this smokestack thing is for, but hey, its a feature.

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The main south gate into campus (the one I come in thru every day).

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this garden is near my apt. on south campus

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Now for the entertaining bits. I’ve mentioned to a few people the amazingly big and architecturally inclined spiders here, and while I can’t get a web to show up on my camera, I thought these pics might give you some idea of what I’m talking about. The spiders themselves are about 2 inches (including legs) and the webs are usually 3-4 feet in diameter. The webs are not as patterned as say an orb spider, but they tend to be three dimensional, being a few inches deep in addition to the many feet wide. Thankfully, there are enough regular cleaning staff that no webs ever wind up on the paths, but they can be seen from the road. The pictures below are of a spider perched in his web (not one dangling in midair). You can just see the edges of the trees he has built his web between, and these are TREES not bushes, the whole thing was about 8 feet in the air. The thumbnails do not do it justice, since the spider is a little black dot, so I suggest to those who really want the full effect to go get the full size pics.

73 freaky spider 3.jpgAnd last but not least, the army kids. Some of you may be aware that military participation is mandatory in China. So all the freshmen, rather than starting their classes, are participating in military training, which seems to consist mostly of learning how to march in formation. They have been shouting outside the classrooms all week, and I often have to yell to be heard over them in class. I took some pictures of their drilling practices, and tonight I’m going to some kind of show which is being held in the football field (apparently that they’ve been preparing for, hence the yelling), that thing that looks like a bunch of colored squared on the north west corner of campus is actually a football field that they’ve covered with a plastic tarp and chairs. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the People’s Army…

Peace out!

¹ So many more pictures. If you want to see more, check out the album on Facebook (where picture storage is free).

Sep 28, 2007 at 2:40pm

I’m a little behind in posts this week, but I finally got the pics off my camera, so here we go. I moved my weekly exploration outing to Sunday (rather than Sat) to better coincide with chatting and game times in Seattle.

After my last trip into Beijing being so hectic, I was planning a nice relaxing day of browsing through one of the quieter shopping centers, however, this did not turn out to be the case. Adam, the anime fanboy foreign teacher here, heard of my planned outing and asked to come along. I agreed and expressed my desires for a quiet shopping trip, alas, it was not to be. After only a few minutes at the shopping center I scouted out last time (the one under the big glass cone in the previous pics), Adam wanted to show me a nearby center he’d been to before… OK… so we hit the streets. Where I saw some interesting signs, and a few examples of native wildlife.

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When we finally found his shopping center, he decided he was hungry, and asked if I’d rather go to MacDonald’s or KFC. Grrr. After waiting for him to get American junk food, I finally found a street vendor and got some REALLY tasty squid in a sauce that tasted a bit like bbq and cocktail sauce mixed together, and some grilled mutton with what tasted like cumin and cinnamon for spices.

We went into the shopping center. I found a nice Tiffany knock off chain for the pendant Miriam gave me (BTW I get compliments on that pendant, and one of the other teachers wants to know if that company has a website). I captured an interesting example of Chinese fashion, and spent a lot of time waiting around the geek area of the mall while Adam perused the entire anime toys/keepsakes collection.

Finally nearing the end of my energy and my patience, we sojourned to Starbucks and had a short break before getting back on the subway to head to a bar where one of Adam’s “friends” was DJing. The bar is called Club Obiwan, and I didn’t get any pics of the interior, cause I was tired and grumpy when we showed up, in no small part because the directions were vague and we got a little lost looking for it. But it turned out to be a really neat place, most of the clientele were ex-pats, westerners living in Beijing. I had a Mojito which was very refreshing and had a basil undertone to it, and there was free BBQ. The theme of the evening being reggae; it was not Chinese bbq. I think it was supposed to be Jamaican, but it was very mild, and oh so tasty. The music was also very nice, being that breed of reggae that is more chill out than rock out. Here is the view from the rooftop dining area.

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We totally cheated and took a taxi back to the bus stop, but it was worth it not to have to face the subway at the end of such a long day.

On Tuesday, all the teachers had to go back into Beijing to file for our residence permits, which ordinarily would not bear a place in a post, but on the way home we passed a mule drawn cart, and I had to share.

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Reflections?

I can see how much my approach to photos and descriptions has changed in 10 years. Clearly, I used to rely on the photos to tell the story, only explaining enough for context. These days I find I really enjoy describing what I see, as so often my experiences simply can’t be captured on camera, but are a blend of all the senses and of my feelings. Subsequently, I write much longer posts, but then the photos can support my story rather than the other way around.

I can also see how what I look for first in a new country hasn’t changed too much: coffee, a good place to shop for the necessities, and the best places to get local food. I haven’t focused as much on my school here in Korea, but I think that has more to do with the fact that it’s not ok to put other people’s children online without permission and I’m teaching actual kids instead of young adult “kids”. But, if it’s something you’d like to hear about, I could certainly work on a school/work post for Korea, too.

Finally, I’ve become much more self conscious about taking photos of people, no matter what age. I suspect that living in Saudi and travelling in the Middle East made me this way, since there is is at best rude and at worst illegal to take or post pictures with faces in them without permission. I don’t know if that’s something I want to change or not, yet, but it’s interesting to think about. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

Letters from China (Getting Settled 2007)

I arrived in China about a week before the job started because I wanted time to get settled into my apartment and do things like find the grocery store. Barring a summer camp gig 2 years previous, this was my first real job abroad and although I didn’t pack quite as many unnecessary things in my luggage, I was still far from being the veteran hit the ground running traveler that I am today. After discovering my LiveJournal account was blocked by the Great Firewall of China, my friends help me set up a message board where I could write home with the harrowing tales of my life in China. The footnotes are a recent addition for the republication.


Aug 29, 2007 at 11:40am

I braved the streets. Well, the alleys anyway. I thought I was going to be on my own, but I ran into the only other teacher who’s arrived. He’s totally American, but is of Taiwanese descent, so he gets treated pretty bad here. Everyone expects him to speak Chinese fluently, and he can’t. But we wandered down to the local supermarket, which is situated in a “walk street” where no cars are allowed, nestled among the shops and vendors, including the Famous California Noodle King. Don’t ask, cause I have no idea.

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I found a vendor selling some kind of melon¹ on a stick which turned out to taste like cantaloupe while looking nothing like it. So I had a tasty fresh fruit breakfast. (for about 13 cents)

The supermarket is 3 stories tall, but the third story was a separate store, a bit more like a department store, with shoes and clothes and stuff.

I picked up a variety of goods, some trash bags and cleaning stuff, some dried and frozen food, some really fascinating chocolate (Dove orange and hazelnut), but as of yet no Icy Mint Sprite²… tho I have not given up hope. This fantastic trip cost about 10$.

I’m sure I’ll be going back soonish, as I figure out what I need, but its not far away, about 2 blocks, and its a good excuse to get out. I got to see the other teacher’s schedule (tho I haven’t gotten mine yet) and it looks like we really do have fairly light loads. I’ll let you all know when I have a schedule what it is.

TTFN

¹It’s the Asian Melon. No really, that’s it’s name. They have it in Korea, too.

²Icy Mint Sprite was a beverage I discovered on my first visit to China in 2005 that tasted like non-alcoholic mojitos. I have never found it again.

Aug 29, 2007 at 8:11pm

We went into actual Beijing today. I live in a subcity (like a suburb, but more urban) called Yanjiao (pronounced yen-jaow). We took the bus to the main terminal, a 5 kuai trip (less than 1$)¹ and about 30-40 minutes. Then we took the subway a little further. The subway is actually fairly nice, and it goes both in a line through and a circle around the heart of Beijing. (A 3 kuai trip, less than 50c). We came out under a shopping mall, and when we went out onto the street it was apparently a main shopping drag, and full of shops for everything. I took some notes on how to get there, and I should be able to get back on my own. Even if I don’t want to go back to the same shopping center, there is a stop for Tienanmen, that might be nice to explore, and of course, once downtown, I can also take taxis around if I really need to. I won’t get paid till mid September, so I probably won’t do much shopping beyond basic needs till then, but its still nice to know how to get around.

The only other teacher here yet is rather nice, but totally out of place. I mentioned before that he’s Chinese descent, but American raised. He’s also an I.T. guy and apparently doesn’t really like exploring. He said he’s going to look at this year like a year in prison, and use it to keep a perspective on how great life in America really is. I find this a little depressing, since I look at this whole thing as a great adventure, but it does really put some perspective on this for me to know that so few ppl really want adventure.

Still, he’s a sci-fi geek and a Joss Whedon fan, and he wants to work for the feds too², so at least we have stuff to talk about. I hope some of the other teachers will want to explore more, since I prefer to explore in company… not that I won’t go off on my own if there’s none available, but its nice not to have to.

Finding ppl online at all hours has also been really nice. It means I have a little piece of home whenever I need it, and it makes me feel like i’m not so far away. I hope you all won’t get tired of talking, IMing, posting etc.

loves, Me

¹The Chinese currency is the Renminbi (RMB), also called the Yuan, and colloquially called “kuai”. At the time I was living there, 1USD was about 7.5RMB (kuai). 

²I had this strange notion that I would take my degree in International Studies and work for the US government to uphold democracy, international security, and diplomatic relations. Still, dodged a bullet there, eh?

Aug 30, 2007 at 12:54pm

I met my TA this morning, who had the dubious task of explaining my schedule and responsibilites to me. At least she spoke pretty good English.

The schedule is bizarre all by itself. To start, it is a 20 week semester. Simple enough. The 5th week is a holiday week. OK. All the class times AFTER the holiday move half an hour earlier….uh huh. SOME of my classes don’t start until after the holiday; some end on the 15, 17 or 19th weeks. I have a paper schedule, but I’m thinking of redoing it all so I can understand it.

Monday I’m teaching 2 classes until after the holiday, then 3. one from 1005-1150, another from 230-415 and the third, although written from 430-615 is presumably from 4-545 since that will not start until after the holiday, when the other classes change to 925-1120 and 2-345…I think.

Tuesday its just 2 classes back to back in the morning, from 8am-1150, with the same loverly time shift.

Wed is only one class from 230-415

Thurs theres one at 8 and another at 430, 2 hrs each

Fri just one at 8am

Now, the fun starts:

I have 5 CLASSES, and only 3 COURSES

Course 1 has classes a, b, and c, each of which meet only once a week, and while they will all have different students, they all use the same book and lesson plan.

Courses 2 and 3 have only one class but they meet 2x a week.

There’s also the late starting class, but I’m not sure what that is yet, since I’ve been told they’ll explain it later.

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Then there is the PAPERWORK:

For each class meeting I have an attendance sheet, which the class monitor will write each students name in Chinese and English according to a numerical assignment, and I will track attendance and homework (a combined 30% of the grade I might add)

There is also the course schedule which has a sort of overview of the entire semester’s lesson plan for each class, meaning I have to fill out 5, and they need 4 copies of each.

Then there are the “preface to the lesson” forms which must be filled out for every single class meeting and stapled to my lesson notes.

There are also forms for the final assessment (70% of the grade) but my TA took mercy on me and said we could go over them later in the semester.

I’ll be getting some electric copies of these forms which I shall endeavor to transmit to you all so you can share my pain.

Oh!, and I have to give a lecture in the 9th week, 2 hrs, and i’m thinking of giving it on RPing and the Sci-fi fantasy community, since I can’t think of anything else I can talk about for 2 hrs without getting in trouble here.

Note: I am so jealous of past me’s schedule…12-15 hours a week of teaching time? To put it in perspective, in KSA I taught 27.5 hours of class a week, in Japan I taught 35 hours of class a week, and in Korea I teach 22 hours of class a week. In case you’re curious, never take a job with more than 25, aim for less than 20.

Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01pm

By request, I shall talk about all the interesting food I have experienced so far.

My first meal here was Tuesday’s lunch in the restaurant adjoining the hotel here on campus, where we were taken by the coordinator. It was a buffet and I could not begin to name the dishes, but they were all tasty. My favorite appeared to be eggplant and some kind of root vegetable (I won’t swear to potato). I think I could have eaten a mountain of it.

The next day I went to the store and got the melon onna stick spoken about in earlier posts. From the store, food-wise, I got some chocolate (of course) but of an unusual flavor: orange and hazelnut, which turned out to be bits of candied orange and bits of hazelnuts in Dove milk chocolate (its the most popular chocolate brand here, and comes in MANY more flavors than Dove makes in America). I bought some black rice crackers that I became fond of the last time I was here. They are light and crispy with a little bit of sugar frosting on top. I also got some oatmeal, because, as boring as it is, its good for upset tummies. I experimented a little by picking out a bag from the frozen food section. It had a picture of (raw) meat on skewers on the front, as well as of cows in a meadow, though I’m reasonably sure from the characters that its actually sheep, I keep meaning to look it up but haven’t¹. (more on this later, as I didn’t actually eat it on Wed). I discovered that there was a fresh soy product center in the store and bought some marinated tofu and fresh soy milk, which tastes nothing like the soy milk in the states, but it nonetheless tasty. The marinated tofu was ok, but a little bland, marinated tofu usually has more taste. And lastly I bought some apples, which were reminiscent of fuji or braeburns, crisp, fresh and lightly sweet.

Thursday I went back to the store in quest of more supplies (not wanting to carry too much all at once, I’m taking my time), but found that the store was not yet open, so I partook of some rice dumplings from a nearby vendor. These are sticky rice squished around a filling of some kind and wrapped in bamboo leaves then boiled or steamed. Not knowing the difference between the two types she offered, I got one of each (at a kuai a pop). One was definitely filled with red bean paste, a kind of sweet mush of a distinctive yet mild flavor, and the other I could not identify… it was fruit of some kind, reminiscent of dates², but very strong in flavor with an almost caramelized (almost burnt sugar) aftertaste. I think it would have been better if there were less of it, but I found it too strong.

For lunch I decided to cook up some of those mystery meats, and it turned out they were cooked and spiced and only needed heating up. Once warm, they revealed a mostly tender meat with a few bits of stringiness, but in small chunks so not unpleasant, very moist and spiced predominantly with garlic and cumin (again lending credence to the sheep theory as cumin and mutton are a common combination). They were quite surprisingly tasty.

Later in the evening, past the midday HOT, I returned to the store, got more chocolate (surprise) and experimented more. I found a packet of cookie/cake things with English ingredients which revealed it to be made of mung bean and pea flours with floral essences and a bit of sugar. They are very dry, but not crispy, they’re soft, almost powdery, and go very well with tea (hot or iced) and I’d bet coffee as well. I found some rice cookies with chocolate filling, and I am a bit underwhelmed. They are crispy, but a little oily and the chocolate is barely tasteable. I will not be buying those again. I broke down and got some Nescafe, at least until I get back into Beijing downtown to a Starbucks for some ground coffee and a machine of some kind. I will not discuss Nescafe.

I got some more mystery meat skewers (same kind as before, its good to have something at home I know I can eat³), some fried tofu puffs which were nice, but need a sauce of some kind, which I will look for next time. I also got a coffee cola (not Coke Black but something else) but I haven’t opened it yet, so I don’t know how it tastes. And finally, fantastic peaches (omg). The fruit here is so fresh and so good. They were that perfect peach texture, not too hard, but not mushy, lightly sweet with a thin skin that was only lightly tart and not at all bitter. Juicy enough to make you slurp, but not so juicy you need a napkin. Perfect.

On the way out, I stopped to buy a roasted chicken from another street vendor and I think he teased me about not going to KFC next door, but I couldn’t really tell… regardless, the chicken was fantastic! A light sweet and spicy sauce had been used in the roasting and coated the chicken with its baked on goodness. It was a little small by American standards, but soooo much better and not injected or anything, just chicken. The meat, even the white, was quite moist and tender, and lead me to think I will risk more KFC jokes to get more†.

Today (Friday) I quested out to a restaurant on my own for dinner. (Currently all my ventures have told me that I have forgotten a lot about Chinese language, and really need practice, so I’ve been reticent to dine alone). Not being cognizant enough to try to decipher the menu, I ordered xi hong shi chao ji dan (that egg and tomato dish‡). It was a little saltier in the egg than I would have liked, and used green onions instead of cilantro, changing rather seriously the overall taste of the dish. I don’t know as of yet if this is regional or merely restaurant specific, but I’m sure i’ll find out eventually. There was easily 2 servings on my plate (no rice) and the meal was still less than 1$….ah I love the economy of food here.

So I think that’s it on food for now, hope you food fans enjoyed the descriptions, I’m sure there will be more to follow.

¹ I studied Mandarin Chinese in university for two years and a bit, but hadn’t had any classes during my final year, so I was a bit rusty.

² These are jujubes, also known as Asian dates, or Chinese dates. Hence the date flavor.

³ I was gluten and dairy free when I moved to China and didn’t discover my ability to tolerate the wheat and milk there for several months.

† The best chicken, the Chicken of Tasty. It is still spoken about with awe and reverence. I went there once a week at least the entire time I lived there, and it became a point of pride for the owner that the American girl liked his food better than KFC.

‡ Probably still my favorite Chinese food. It’s made of eggs and tomatoes stir-fried in garlic, ginger, cilantro and probably some soy sauce. I ate it as often as possible and miss it like crazy.

Sep 10, 2007 at 6:12pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while, I’ve been sick, as many of you know. I think (knock on wood) its getting better.

In any case, my first week of school was ok. My students are reasonably bright, but pretty shy. The textbooks are fairly easy to use. The schedule is not to stressful, as most days I only have one class and never more than 2 in a a day¹.

The three classes I’m teaching are:

1) a basic Sophomore required English conversation class, we start out by discussing vocabulary and new concepts and move into listening and speaking exercises. I think they’re having fun.

2) a Junior level advanced conversation class, that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how to teach because the book is strangely organized. Last week I tried to teach blind, having not gotten the book in advance and borrowing one of the student’s books to teach from. I hope it gets better.

3) a reading comprehension class, which was a little tough last week because I don’t think the students really prepared, but I told them they had to read ahead and look up new words on their own if they didn’t know them in order to be prepared to discuss the readings in class. We’ll see.

As for the rest of my life last week, well, sickness ate a lot of it. I’ve been a couch potato. Watched “Heroes” and started “Lost”, omg what a messed up island… there’s a pretty reliable source of cheap but bad dvds around here.

I met more of the other teachers.

70b kevin and a guard

Kevin (right) is from Wisconsin. He arrived last Sat. with no Chinese money or language skills, and not even an ATM card to get Chinese money. Poor guy. So I bought him dinner, and we’ve been hanging out, usually having at least one meal a day together, cause its nice to have company, and he has at least a passing chance of knowing what he’s about to eat if I order. He’s a bit of a frat boy type, beer, pizza, ultimate Frisbee, but he was never in a frat, and was also a drama nerd occasionally. He’s super excited to be here and he’s pretty good company.

Adam (not pictured) is also from Wisconsin, tho they didn’t know each other. He’s an anime geek and brought like 400 dvds with him, cause he’s afraid he won’t be able to get anime here… or at least not in English. He talks more than anyone I’ve ever met (including me), even I had trouble getting a word in edgeways. He says he studied Chinese, but I’ve never heard him speak it, he either points to what he wants on the menu or lets me order. He’s also a really picky eater, but I guess that’s his loss. He seems like he means well tho, I mean, he’s not an asshole, he just lacks some social polish, but hey, we all know how gamer/anime geeks can be about that. I’m hoping some of its nervousness about being here and meeting new ppl and will wear off soon.

Erwin (not pictured) came out of his hole to have diner with us yesterday and was actually smiling. (this was the guy who was all depressed about being here, and said he was comparing this year to a year in prison, so yay for smiling). I think maybe his initial yicks are wearing off.

Not much excitement, mostly resting, teaching and going to dinner with the other teachers. I hope that my cold will be gone soon, I really want to go exploring more, and I just don’t have the energy for it right now.

We’re going into Beijing on Wed. I have to get a medical exam, and I’m going to try to open a bank account², but I won’t have time to explore, cause I’ve got class Wed afternoon. I suppose that the upside is that if I’m late that day it won’t be my fault since the department scheduled the Dr. appt. Oh, and don’t panic, its a routine exam required by the gov’t to make sure i’m not going to infect the country. I’m not THAT sick…

my love and hugs, k

¹ So. Jealous.

² I never did open a bank account in China. It turned out to be nearly impossible for a foreigner to do so, since we had to undergo a waiting period and keep the equivalent of 500 USD in the account at all times. That was nearly a whole month’s salary, and I sent half my salary back to the US every month to pay bills, so I could never save enough to open the account.


It’s almost painful for me to leave these letters minimally edited (some punctuation and spelling got fixed). I know I was writing causally to friends but it’s not unlike reading high school poetry… really? I wrote that? I took a lot of pictures in the early days, but didn’t actually post them until later. Sorry for the wall of text.

Reflections? I really miss university teaching, and am glad I’ve decided to go back to that next school year! I miss having English speaking co-workers. EPIK teachers in Korea are fairly isolated. We can make friends and attend group events outside of work, but it’s hit or miss if we have anyone in the same neighborhood, and we’ll never have someone at the same school. I miss real Chinese food so much. The Korean idea of Chinese food is limited to sweet and sour pork and a noodle dish I’ve actually only encountered in Korea called Jajangmyeon (they insist it is Chinese food). Taiwan is seriously looking good for the next country.

 

Letters From China (Introduction)

No, I haven’t moved to China (and probably won’t because of the pollution), but I used to live there ten years ago. I’ve been meaning to move the stories over to this blog for a few years, and since the second semester looks like it’s going to be more dental work than exploring, it seemed like a good time to go for it. 


The very first time I went to teach abroad was a 7 week program in the summer of 2005, and I did zero online storytelling that time. However, upon graduating from the UW, I embarked on my first long term ESL contract in China in August of 2007 teaching at a technical college near but not actually in Beijing. I wasn’t keeping a blog, yet. Actually, in 2007 Facebook was still a baby, so it was my plan to have a LiveJournal to update friends and family on my adventures, but when I got to China, it turned out LJ was blocked, so we made a cute little message board instead.

These are not really stories in the way that I have evolved to tell stories in this blog. They’re more like letters home. I thought that the 10 year mark was a good time to dust them off and bring them back into the light to see where my adventures began and how my storytelling has evolved.

The letters are reproduced through this series in roughly chronological order with some regrouping by topic and a little editing for clarity. The 13 posts will be released as I am able to proofread and reinsert the original photos, but here’s a draft list for reference. (Hint: if it doesn’t work as a link, it’s probably not posted yet)

Letters From China:

Getting Settled 2007: My arrival in China, the beginning of the message board, my first impressions of my town, meeting the other teachers and learning about my job, my first visit to Beijing (not counting that week in 2005), and a bonus letter about Chinese food.

First Month 2007: Stories about my school, my students, shopping, and other experiences as I found my feet and started to learn how to be an expat. Also, finding coffee.

Playing Tourist 2007: Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing; the lake district; and the Great Wall at Huangyaguan.

Queen’s Village 2007: I got invited by one of my students to come to her village and visit her family over a weekend. I got this a lot actually, but only Queen lived close enough for us to actually do it. I was the first foreigner to ever set foot in her village, despite the fact that it was less than 2 hours by bus away from the Beijing city center. It remains one of the most unique and treasured experiences of my adventures to this day.

The Bunny 2007-8: I got a bunny. He was adorable. He was frustrating. He saved me from depression and made me threaten to turn him into gloves several times. These are his stories.

Fall 2007: This is where I hit my first major clash with the monster of culture shock. The letters are fairly emotional and show what I have now come to affectionately dub the “culture shock roller coaster” very effectively. Way before I had any idea what hit me.

Holidays 2007: Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, Christmas without Christ in China, New Year’s Eve, decorating and celebrating my first set of holidays away from home.

Winter 2007-8: Snowmen, Chinese home remedies (aka the ginger coke story), my long weekend in the old capital city of Xi’an, where the Terracotta Warriors are from, although I didn’t write anything about them. Plus some letters about surviving the bitter cold and isolation of a north China winter, Dostoevsky style.

About Tibet 2008: In the spring of 2008 there were riots in Tibet that were reported in the Chinese news. Since I was teaching a journalism class at the time, I hoped to open a discussion, but was quickly shut down by the students, and the school, and the government. It’s not a long letter, but I felt it deserved it’s own post.

Holidays 2008: Saint Patrick’s Day with the Irish and the first open parade in Beijing since 1989, Easter Brunch, and April Fool’s pranks at school.

Spring in the City 2008: After my return from winter break, I needed western surroundings and more reliable internet than I could get in my small town, so I started weekly forays into Beijing in pursuit of these and other necessities/comforts. And cherry blossoms.

Bunny Bureaucracy 2008: The intrepid and daring tale of how we fought the bureaucracy of two countries to bring the Bunny back to the US. So worth it.

The End 2008: The beginning and progression of the illness that forced me to leave China and nearly ended my adventures forever.


I learned some interesting things looking back on these letters too.

I have grown a lot. And have become much more adept at navigating the challenges of living abroad, culture shock, and other unfamiliar life challenges. It feels good. My life is by no means challenge free, but I feel like I’ve leveled up… a couple times. And it’s not just the challenges of bureaucracy or different ways of doing things or even dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of culture shock. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the world around me, broadening and deepening my understanding and my compassion.

I miss noticing new things. I don’t know if it’s because this is my second year in Korea or because it’s my 4th country to work in, but I feel like there were way more “oh, how does this work” or “wow, this is different” observations in these old letters than in my recent posts. I’m not sure how to get that back or even if I can for Korea, but I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I move.

I really miss teaching at university level. This elementary thing has been fun, but I miss being able to talk to my students about real things. So many stories from China (and from Saudi) came from being able to communicate with my students about their lives and their culture. However sweet, adorable and full of unconditional love my elementary students are, they are not full of complex thoughts that they can share with me.

But most of all, I miss the level of support and involvement I used to get from readers. I mean, back then, my only readers were friends and family, but these days I feel like I interact more with readers I don’t know personally than readers I do. And even then, we don’t interact much. I value every comment. I yearn to see discussions and shared stories appear in my comments section. I hope my messenger blows up and my instagram is full of words. I need people, not just likes. Hope to hear from you soon. ❤

“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

Food in the US and Abroad: Wheat Gluten

I like food. I like to try different foods while travelling and write about them. I also have food sensitivities and allergies. While I’m in America, I’m very picky about what I eat because the American processed food is so horrible. Most of what I avoid are artificial ingredients. I think of myself as a “real foodist”. In America, that means doing most of my own cooking and reading labels scrupulously.

Normally, I also avoid wheat. I know its really trendy now, but about 14-15 years ago as a last ditch effort to deal with a chronic pain and fatigue diagnosis, I tried cutting wheat and dairy from my diet and it had a positive effect, reducing my pain and increasing my energy. I don’t care if I’m allergic, intolerant or celiac. I just like not being in pain. Every couple years, I try something again to see if its still a problem (or sometimes accidentally eat something).

However, I’ve found that travelling outside the US changes my food options very significantly. Not only do most other countries offer real food for cheaper than processed food (opposite of the US), but the candy, sweets, bread, and restaurant foods all tend to be made of more real ingredients than not. Plus the processes for preparing pre-made food are more likely to be recognizable as cooking instead of chemistry.

When I lived in China in 2007 I got homesick once and we went to an expat pizza joint. They imported their flour (this is relevant) because Chinese wheat has less gluten and makes bad pizza. I ate it anyway, and of course felt icky for days afterward. A few months later, in another homesick slump, I thought, to hell with it, I want a slice of chocolate cake. There was a bakery in my neighborhood that I passed all the time. I expected to feel sick, but didn’t care. Imagine my surprise when I didn’t feel sick!

I continued to be able to eat Chinese wheat products with no problem, but imported products were not ok. I even tried wheat again once I returned to the US and it was no go. I chalked it up to Chinese low gluten wheat and moved on.

A few years ago, I read some new research about the fermentation process of bread products no longer being used in the US. Back before huge factories made our food, bread dough was left to sit for hours (often 12-16) while it rose and was kneaded and the little yeast monsters broke down the sugars (and proteins) and made little air bubbles. Turns out the yeast also made the hard to digest wheat easier on the human gut, allowing us to extract more nutrients with fewer problems.

We stopped this process in the name of efficiency, and now can make a loaf of bread from start to finish in 40 minutes! We bleach and strip the flour then add nutrients back in so that it still comes out soft and tasty without the fermentation time, but gluten intolerance in the US is on the rise.

There isn’t yet any conclusive evidence as to why, or what can be done about it, which is why I don’t really care what my “diagnosis” is, and only how my body responds to the food I put in it.

When I first got here to Saudi, I went next door to get some shawarma and the guys brought us some complimentary baked bread thingies with like a chicken spinach filling. Not wanting to be rude, and not feeling able to explain the food sensitivity, I ate one. Again, no ill effects the next day. So I tried a few more wheat items with no problems.

Then I looked up wheat in Saudi and found that the government both claims great exports of wheat and is eliminating home grown wheat by 2016 in favor of importing wheat from a bunch of different countries (including the US, but I’m not sure what their stance on GMO’s is yet). No logic.

At some point I hope to experiment with baguettes in France, too.

I don’t avoid wheat to be trendy. When I quit wheat there were no alternatives on the market, no one had heard of gluten intolerance, waitresses offered me pancakes when I asked about wheat free breakfast options, and co-workers were astonished to learn there was wheat in birthday cake. I appreciate the new trend because it makes my options in the US broader, although I still read labels relentlessly because many companies use other ingredients I object to while claiming gluten free status.

The fact that I can enjoy bread products while overseas is pretty cool. Even nicer is the fact that I’ve grown accustomed to a largely bread free diet means that its still a treat rather than a staple. I don’t understand why I have problems with wheat products only in America. I’ve started to believe the problem for me isn’t the wheat (or at least if it is, then its a particular American mono-culture of wheat), but rather the processing. Until I find the answer, I just tell people I’m allergic to America. ;P

The Glorious 35th of May

No that’s not a typo in the title. I’m talking about June 4th using the oblique reference some Chinese satirically use to avoid drawing unwanted government attention to their discussion of the pro-democracy protests on that day 25 years ago. Also with a little nod to Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch thrown in for good measure. Also, yes I know I’m a few days late, but the last several days have been so full of thoughts and news and reflections that it took me some time to get my own in order.

The iconic image of the young man standing in front of the oncoming tanks is known to many, but the details of what happened that day are not often focused on. This post is just my own musings on the situation, and not really meant to be a history lesson. Fortunately, there are a ton of retrospectives out there right now, so google to your hearts content for the official history or just click here for a short sweet version with videos.

My Impressions of the Square

06-entry to Forbidden CityThe first time I went to China,  I visited the square on my last week there in the summer of 2005. The square was very open, ringed by government buildings, the tomb of Mao, and the Forbidden City, the giant expanse of red brick was scarcely broken up at all. The streets around the square are major roads, and there were only a few places where one could cross them, but the important thing here is, one could cross the roads and enter the square at pretty much any point.05 - Olympic countdown There were underground passages into the square. I actually thought at the time that these were kind of cool, because it seemed safer for the huge mass of pedestrian traffic to not have to deal with street lights and cross walks.Oh, I can’t forget to mention the Olympic countdown clocks, which were counting down the subsequent three years until the Beijing Olympics.

My last visit was in 2012, after the Olympic updates and security increases, and now the square is entirely enclosed by a permanent fence and can only be entered via the underground tunnels which now include security guards and x-ray machines that make TSA look wimpy. Additionally, food trucks, extra architecture and gardening, and huge giant massive televisions screens have been installed in the square, breaking up the previously wide open space, and pretty much destroying the awesome impact of standing in the world’s largest public square. Here’s the same statue in 2005 and 2012, you can see the added fences and hedges, and the two television screens that break the whole square up.

All of this increased security and breaking up of the landscape is designed specifically to prevent the use of the square as a platform for public protest, while keeping it a bustling tourist attraction.

So What About the Massacre?

This is a little trickier. I don’t actually remember when I learned about it first. I think we talked about it in school when it happened, but Chinese culture and history is not widely taught in America, so it was never more than mentioned.  I did spend some time studying in grad school while I was researching the Falun Gong, because the 10th anniversary played a role in the 1999 crackdown on that group. What I do remember, is that I never for a moment doubted that this was a stunning act of violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests of those who wanted to bring democracy to their country.

On the 4th, one of my former professors from the UW who is still on my FB posted some of his own pictures and journal entries from the event. You see, he had been there. Seeing someone I know in the midst of all that was really quite surreal. And his journal entries gave an extremely personal view of the violence, speaking of the rusted skeletons of army trucks on fire, the bullet holes in the glass of the subway station, and bicycles pancake-flattened like cartoons after having been run over by the tanks.

This made me think about my own experience with the youth of China while I was teaching at a college near Beijing in 2007. I have no idea how the topic came up, maybe we were discussing rights and freedoms. The Chinese students were very proud of all the rights they have as Chinese citizens, but the right to assembly and peaceful protest still don’t exist there. Then all of a sudden, we’re talking about the pro-democracy protests in 1989. I’m curious what the students think of it, do they even know it happened? Because of the internet, it is difficult to keep certain things from the tech-savvy Chinese youth, and they had all seen the iconic tank-man photo. However, they argued, since the tanks had stopped and not run the man over, it was a peaceful protest and no one died.

Relying on the notion that few Chinese would take the time and energy to go through proxy websites (circumventing the Great Firewall of China) to read English language historical accounts, the government acknowledged the photo, but changed the narrative around it. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t formulate a response to this argument, which was probably just as well, because trying to convince my class of the real history could have gotten me fired or even deported. Yeah, free speech is totally a thing there.

The 25th Anniversary

All over the news, all over the net, trending in social media in Hong Kong, Taiwan and all over the world except in China. Back to the Great Firewall of China, the government actually banned the use of certain words for the day, including the word “today”. The internet police (yeah that’s a thing) managed to get each offensive reference to the date off the net in about ten minutes.  However, according to the BBC China Trending Editor (how do you get this job title?) the Chinese who wanted to commemorate the event did so by referencing the musical Les Miserables, specifically the Finale.

That’s right, the modern Chinese pro-democracy movement is looking to the French struggle for democracy as a means of discussing their own plight. And while I am sad that my students didn’t seem to know what had happened in their country less than two decades before, I am heartened by the number of people in China and around the world that have taken the time to remember what happens when people stand up for a government that they want, instead of one that is forced on them. We are seeing this every day in the Arab Spring, in Thailand, and other places where the quest for self-governance becomes violent, and now we know we’re seeing it on a quieter scale through the global community on the internet.

This afternoon, while listening to NPR, I heard the story of Ko Jimmy and Nilar Thein. They were pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (nee Burma) who started protesting in 1988, and were arrested and spent many years in prison. The military dictatorship they were fighting against finally ended in 2011, and they (along with hundreds of other political prisoners) were freed in 2012. Ko and Nilar were greeted as heroes. Maybe one day, the thousands who lost their lives and freedom at Tiananmen 25 years ago will be remembered by everyone as fondly.

Three Faces of the Great Wall

There are dozens of places you can visit the Great Wall if you are in China. Many of the most convenient are within a day trip of Beijing. Each time I have traveled to Beijing, I’ve taken one of these day trips to a different spot: Mutianyu, Huangyaguan, and Jiankou. Each of them has something different and interesting to offer, and are all a great way to spend a day. These aren’t the complete stories of each adventure, but rather a side by side view of all three.

Brief Words of Advice

Hire a “private taxi”. Many websites tell you how you can take a bus out to the sites, and you can, but  its hard to explore properly when you have to be worried about catching the bus back. Also, the buses are way overcrowded and you might wait a long time to board, which is just less time for exploring. Private taxis are basically those who own their own car and are willing to be your driver for the day for a set price. Make sure to negotiate the price ahead of time, and don’t pay them until you’re all done. To give you some basic idea of a fair price, in 2005 we paid 500RMB, in 2012 we paid 600RMB. The drivers take you out, wait for you in the parking lot all day, and return you to your evening destination.

Don’t bother going to Badaling. Every tour group in China goes there. It is like the Disney of the Great Wall, and is only good for snapping a pic and buying a t-shirt. It was renovated for Nixon’s visit, and again for the Olympics in 2008. It is crowded, inauthentic, crowded, and full of people trying to sell you overpriced junk. No matter what your personal goals are, I guarantee there is a better section of the Great Wall for you to experience than this one.

Mutianyu & the Ming Tombs

My very first trip to China in 2005, after my contract in Jinan was over, I went up to spend a week with a friend from school in Beijing. Of course, I wanted to go to the Great Wall, so my friend arranged a private taxi to take us to Mutianyu. Despite the fact that it was summer, there were very few tourists at this location, we basically had the wall to ourselves aside from the occasional vendor. We chose to go up the side without the slide, but I have to admit, this is the first part of the Wall I want to take my niece and nephew to, because what kid doesn’t want to slide down the Great Wall of China?

The far side was less developed. It felt almost surreal to be in such a huge space with so few people in it after the last two months that I had spent being constantly crowded by the Chinese. When we reached the end of the open path, we could see beyond the fence that trees had grown up in the wall beyond, and what had once been a symbol of Imperial power, was being reclaimed by the mountain.

One of the great things about Mutianyu (aside from the slide) is its proximity to the Ming Tombs. Many Chinese Imperial families had elaborate tombs, and the Ming are no exception. This is a neat underground tour of the actual tomb, and some above ground museums and gardens. It is definitely worth the stop over if you’re heading to Mutianyu.

Huangyaguan & Guancheng

In 2007, I was working for a state run school, and they decided to take all us expat teachers out to the Great Wall for a day in the early fall. This was the only trip I took as part of such a large group, but it was ok because it was just teachers from my school. The school got us a little charter bus, and off we went.

At the base of the Wall there is a little town where we ate lunch, and there was also a series of beautiful gardens and a museum. This kind of thing is really the proof that not all sections of the Great Wall are the same. While the Wall itself can be slightly repetitive, especially in the well restored areas, these little gems are well worth making multiple Wall excursions, or at very least, carefully choosing which experience you want to have.

The gardens included a stele garden, a maze based on the Bagua (eight diagrams), and a miniature replica of the Great Wall.

The Wall is steep, and the views are lovely. Like many areas of the Wall, the further you get from the entry point, the less well restored it is. If you have the patience and stamina to keep walking you will get to some very different stone work that is the work of dynasties long past, and be rewarded with a view of miles of wall in either direction.

Jiankou

In 2012, I took some friends to China for the first time. Like all first time visitors, the Great Wall was a priority, but they were polite enough to want to make sure I got to see something new. We decided on Jiankou because it was described as being the wildest and least restored part of the Great Wall within a day trip of Beijing. Words like “dangerous” and “experienced hikers” appealed to us. And boy is it worth it.

This is just one more reason to hire private taxis. The driver we hired knew a “secret spot” basically where he and some other drivers were (presumably) bribing local officials to bring tourists into this closed off section of the wall. There are publicly open sections of Jiankou, but our driver asked if we wanted a more restored or more wild experience. Wild, of course, we replied! And so we had a wonderful, private  expanse of Wall that had been unrestored for at least 100 years, if not more.

Huge swathes of the Wall had simply collapsed down the side of the mountain. Stairs were no more than a shamble of blocks. Trees had grown up in the pathways, leaving us with thin, single file paths through the foliage. It was breathtaking. Not a single restaurant or vendor to be found, so make sure you pack plenty of water and snacks.

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Each one of these journeys was amazing and offered a completely different view of China’s history and achievements. So, if the Great Wall is on your bucket list, I hope this helps you make the most of it.

Saber-Toothed Deer?

Way back in 2005, during my very first trip to China, I lived in the town of Jinan. The school had given us all a map of the city that had points of interest marked on it, like the zoo, the public square, historical and cultural sites of interest, touristy stuff. I took a lot of cues from this map for weekend adventures, and among the activities presented was the Shandong Provincial Museum.

Jinan, by the way, is the capitol of Shandong province, and is a small provincial town of 6 million people. This isn’t sarcasm. Six million isn’t enough to register as a city in a country where Beijing (20 million if you count the migrants) and Shanghai (14 million) are the big cities, 6 million isn’t enough for a blip. I only saw one skyscraper the whole time I was there, but moreover the attitude of the people was definitely more laid back and “small town” than it was in Beijing.

Despite this, the museum is not called “provincial” for the small town feel of its home city, but rather because the larger bodies of land in China are Provinces (not States, Counties, or Prefectures, the Canadians in the audience get it).

There were many astonishing things here, not the least of which was that none of the exhibits were climate controlled or protected from the public, however, in the natural history area, I found a peculiar taxidermied animal.

I read Chinese better now than I did in 2005, and I also have an electronic dictionary, which I did not have at the time, so I couldn’t read the plaque with this creature to get any kind of idea what I was looking at other than a saber-tooth deer, which seemed absurd.

Sadly, this particular day, my camera decided to lose all my pictures, so everything from the museum and Thousand Buddha Mountain was lost forever, including the picture that I took of the strange animal for later investigation.

For the last 9 years, I’ve just gone on being half (ok more than half) convinced that the Chinese just made this animal up in this backwater museum, because I’ve never encountered anything like it on line, or in nature documentaries, or even in any other Chinese museums.

Tufted Deer

Then, while perusing facebook for random entertainment, I find a link to a story about strange animals which includes my saber-tooth deer! That’s right this animal is real. The males grow long canines which they use for defense and to show off by fighting in the mating season. Well played,  mother nature.