Myths & Tales from China 03

As the Gods withdraw from creating the earth, the age of great heros begins. Demi-gods and great sages who challenge the gods and the natural world to bring specialized knowledge of technology and medicine to improve the lives of humanity, lifting us from stone aged hunter-gatherers into the metal-working, agrarian societies that lead to greater civilizations and achievements.


The Story of Fuxi

A very long time ago, there was a country called Huaxu. The people who lived there were happy and long lived. Their lives were not that different from the Daoist Immortals. One day, a beautiful young Huaxu maiden was out strolling in the forest near Thunder Lake when she unwittingly wandered into the domain of god of Thunder. She saw a giant footprint on the ground and she was very curious. She held out her foot next to the giant print to see the difference in size. The instant she set her own foot into the giant footprint, the air was filled with the rumbling sound of thunder, and giant passed over her head then disappeared in a flash.

The Huaxu maiden took fright and ran back. She didn’t expect that after that day her belly would begin to get bigger, but ten months later she gave birth to an adorable baby boy. She named him Fuxi.

From the time he was little, Fuxi was smart and talented. Once he chopped down a small paulowina tree, trimmed it, and strung it with fifty strings. He called it a Se Harp and when he began to play it, it made melodious sounds that were very beautiful to hear. 

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One day, while Fuxi was playing music, a peal of thunder arrived from far away. He raised his head and thought to himself, “I have heard it said that my father is the god of Thunder that lives in Heaven. I too should go to Heaven and see him. Yes! Some people say that there is a tree called Jian Mu in the Southeast, it is extremely high and large, only if I climb that can I reach the Heavenly Court of the Immortal gods!” Thus, Fuxi took his Se Harp and departed Huaxu to begin his search for Jian Mu.

Fuxi headed out towards the Southeast. The more he walked, the more desolate it became. One day, he saw a group of starving people hitting a bison in order to kill it for food. They pulled the meat off a piece at a time, dripping with blood, and stuffed it into their mouths and ate it. Seeing them act this way, Fuxi was extremely astonished.

When he arrived at the banks of Blackwater River, Fuxi saw a person standing in the river grabbing at fish. When a small fish passed by, the person immediately pounced on it, but actually pouncing on thin air they were swept into the torrent and were carried away by the water in the blink of an eye. Fuxi saw this and felt very sad.

Fuxi walked and watched, walked and watched until he met the goddess Sunu. He then went up and asked, “Excuse me, but may I ask, do you know the way to Jian Mu which leads up to Heaven?” She answered his question with one of her own, “Are you so unsatisfied staying upon the Earth? What are you doing looking for Jian Mu?” Fuxi answered, “In order to go up to Heaven! In Heaven waits my father, the god of Thunder!”

“Very well, I will tell you where to find Jian Mu, but remember, when you climb up Jian Mu, you must on no account turn and look down!” When Sunu finished speaking, she pointed her finger. Fuxi followed her pointing finger and as expected, he saw a giant tree, unmatched in size by any other, growing straight into the sky. It was surely Jian Mu.

In order to show his gratitude, Fuxi loosed the Se Harp from his back and gave it to Sunu. After that, he began to climb Jian Mu. This was a very strange tree, the bark was very smooth and difficult to climb. Fuxi didn’t dare to be even a little bit careless, and slowly, slowly pulled himself up. Meanwhile, Sunu sat down under the tree and used the Se Harp to play some music. The sound that traveled up to Fuxi’s ears was very soulful, like it was expressing all the woes of the mortal world. He listened and listened and was soon distracted. Not paying attention, he slipped a long way down the tree.

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Fuxi quickly pulled himself back together and continued climbing upward. At the very moment he climbed to the highest branch of Jian Mu, the music Sunu was playing echoed through the skies, forlorn and filled with sorrow.  Fuxi was afraid; he forgot the warning of Sunu and turned his head to look back downwards. This time he was ruined. He felt nothing but the sky and earth spinning, and all of a sudden he fell down.

Fuxi, bearing his pain, began to get up from the ground. He yelled out, “Sunu!”, but she was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, the waves in Blackwater River rose suddenly and issued forth a rare and mythic creature. The creature said, “You have fallen from Heaven. It was not Sunu that caused you to be distracted, but your own reluctance to leave the mortal world!” When Fuxi heard this he was quite amazed, and decided not to climb Jian Mu again.

Thus, he came into the East, and there he established a kingdom. He taught the people how to hunt, how to domesticate wild animals, how to use string to weave nets, and he taught the people to use the nets to catch fish and birds. Ever since then, people have not had to go hungry and their lives are much better than they were before.


Shen’nong Tries All the Plants

In ancient times the five crops and the weeds all grew together, medicinal plants and all the flowers bloomed in one place. No one could clearly distinguish which plants could be eaten or which ones could be used to treat illness. The common people were dependent on hunting for their livelihood, but the more they hunted the birds that flew the air, the fewer they became; and the more they hunted the beasts that walked on the ground, the rarer they became. People often went hungry. And if someone got a rash or got sick, then there was no way to treat them, and people could only look on helplessly and wait for the them to die.

The tribe’s chief, Shen’nong considered the situation of the suffering of ordinary people and he felt pain in his heart and mind. He decided to find crops that could sate hunger and herbs that could be sued to treat illness for his people. He lead several of his subjects, setting off from Mt. Li and walking towards the Northwest. They walked and walked, they walked for seven times seven or forty-nine days. They arrived at a place where the peaks of high mountains met and canyons ran into one another. Growing atop the mountains were strange plants and unusual grasses that they could smell even from very far away. Shen’nong was extremely happy and led his people into a canyon until they reached the foot of a large mountain.

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This mountain stuck straight up into the sky, and all four sides were steep cliffs. The cliffs were overgrown with moss, and rivulets of water slid down them. He saw without a ladder to heaven they could not ascend. His subjects pleaded with him to let it be, to return home with haste. Shen’nong resolutely shook his head. He looked up and down the high mountain, carefully sizing it up then thought hard. Suddenly he spotted several golden monkeys following along high old hanging vines and moving horizontally between the cliffs and climbing the trees that grew there. Shen’nong had an idea!  He called for his people to come then had them chop wood, cut vines, and build a shelf frame that leaned against the cliffs. Every day they built another layer no matter if it was windy and rainy, or snowing and freezing, they never stopped working. They built constantly for one year until they reached the mountain top.

Shen’nong carefully, cautiously climbed up the wooden frame up the mountain. Wow! The top of the mountain was truly a world of flowers and grasses, Shen’nong was very excited. He called to his people to guard against attacks from wolves, tigers, panthers or other animals. He himself picked flowers and plants and put them in his mouth to taste them. By day, he led his people around the mountain top tasting plants; by night, the people lit a bonfire, and he would sit by the fire and record in detail his discoveries of the day: which ones are bitter and which sweet, which ones can sate hunger and which can cure illness. He wrote it all down clearly and distinctly.

Once, he put a very strange looking plant into his mouth and began to chew, immediately he became dizzy and fell to the ground. His subjects rushed to help him up. He was at once aware that he was poisoned, but he was already unable to speak. He could only feebly point at the bright red reishi mushroom ahead and then point to his own mouth. One subject understood his meaning, and quickly fed him the reishi mushroom. After Shen’nong ate the reishi, he felt instantly refreshed, and the poisoned miasma melted away all at once. He quickly told his people to record the poisonous plant, as well the healing reishi. Even though this time they averted disaster, his subjects worried that this way of tasting everything would sooner or later be dangerous, so they begged him to go back down the mountain. But as before, he resolutely shook his head.

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When he finished tasting all the plants on one mountain, Shen’nong went on to another mountain to keep tasting, until his footprints were stamped all over the mountain range. Finally, he tasted wheat, rice, millet, corn and a whole bunch of edible beans and later these became known as “the five crops”. He also tasted three hundred and sixty-five types of medicinal herbs and wrote “Bencai Jing”, the classical book of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine.

Years flew by in the blink of an eye, Shen’nong was about to carry the herbs he had picked and the seeds he had gathered down the mountain when he discovered that the wooden frames they had built had grown roots. During the long days, they had unexpectedly grown into a sea of trees. While Shen’nong was trying to figure out how to get down the mountain, a flock of red-crested cranes flew by in midair and carried him and the subjects at his side up into the Heavenly Court. In later years, people will come to give Shen’nong the title of Flame Emperor Yan Di. 

Myths & Tales from China 02

Welcome back to the ancient pre-history mythology of the Middle Kingdom! In our first installment, Pangu created the earth and heavens from a giant cosmic egg and Nuwa – the half serpent goddess – created mankind from droplets of mud to ease her loneliness. However, much like the Greek myths focus on the Titans and Gods a while before the age of man begins, so too does the Chinese pantheon get up to some tricks before humans get to start running the world.


Gong’gong Attacks Mt. Buzhou

Gong’gong is the god of water, in charge of the seas, the great rivers, the lakes and the ponds. He is the son of the fire god Zhurong, and grew up looking like Nuwa with the head and torso of a man and the body of a snake. He had an irritable disposition. Often while strolling through the Court of Heaven, everywhere he went, he found the other gods annoying. Sometimes, on pretext of going on an inspection tour of his territorial waters, he would even go to the Human world and stir up trouble.

The person that Gong’gong was least able to get along with was is own father, fire god Zhurong. Zhurong often rode in a cloud chariot pulled by two dragons when watching everything. He also had a very irritable disposition, and furthermore, he couldn’t stand to see his son Gong’gong’s behavior and actions.

One day, father and son began to quarrel over who knows what, back and forth, the more they quarreled, the more terrible it became. Afterwards, Gong’gong went so far as to pull out his axe and take a swing at his father. Zhurang angrily picked up a weapon to face him.

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The two of them tread upon the clouds, sword against axe. The fighting was exceptionally fierce; three days and three nights passed with no clear winner. Gradually, Gong’gong little by little was unable to hold his own, and he retreated to the human world. He arrived below Mt. Buzhou, and in a moment would be defeated by Zhurong.

Unexpectedly, Gong’gong fell to the ground and immediately collected and blended the waters of the rivers, lakes and oceans, and with a strength that could topple mountains or overturn seas, he pressed them all down upon Zhurong. Zhurong glanced up, immediately spouted spirit fire, and roasted Gong’gong. Some of the great waters doused part of the raging inferno, but the fire was truly too big, and the waters of the seas and rivers got cooked up hot. Gong’gong got a little nervous, and Zhurong spouted flames even more fiercely and the waters of the seas and lakes cooked until they began to boil. If this cooking goes on, all the water on the earth will be cooked dry!

Gong’gong’s defeat had come. Zhurong rode his dragon chariot back. Gong’gong’s belly was full of anger he had nowhere to vent, so then he flew into the air and rammed ferociously, head first into Mt. Buzhou, wanting to die. There was only heard a huge sound that shook heaven, Mt. Buzhou was cut off at the middle, and the mountain began to crumble and collapse with a rumble-rumble, but Gong’gong wasn’t damaged in the slightest.

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Mt. Buzhou pierces straight into the skies. Originally, it served as one of the pillars that support Heaven, so when it was struck like this by Gong’gong and suddenly broke, it caused the appearance of Heaven and Earth to change. The sky collapsed in one corner, exposing a black hole, the Sun, Moon and Stars all changed places, at the same time slipped toward the northwest. The earth was crisscrossed with cracks, floodwaters overflowed and fires spread, and the people we caught up in this catastrophe…

Nu Wa Mends Heaven

Gong’gong had angrily struck Mt. Buzhou and knocked it over, causing a huge hole to appear in the Western sky. The earth of ancient China had suddenly split open in long stretches of deep ravines, flaming infernos burned on without dying, vast floods flowed without rest, and ferocious wild animals came out of the forests and attacked the good and honest people.

When Nuwa saw the children she had created with her own hands suffering disaster, she became extremely flustered, and resolved to repair the hole in Heaven. She searched everywhere for something that could be used to repair Heaven. One day, she came to a river’s edge and discovered that the river contained many multicolored stones which were astonishingly beautiful.

Therefore, she dug out a giant furnace in the earth and set a huge frame for a pot beyond compare on the surface. Afterward she selected several of the multicolored stones from the river and placed them into the pot. She lit a spirit fire and slowly simmered them for seven times seven or forty-nine days. Finally the pot of stones boiled until it was all thick like congee. Nuwa then used these melted stones of all five colors to mend the hole in Heaven, and brilliant multi-colored sunset hued clouds appeared in the Northwest. 

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Nuwa smiled gratefully. But very soon she became anxious again, Mt. Buzhou had crumbled, and now the Northwest corner of the sky had nothing to hold it up, what if there was another collapse, that could still happen! Thus, she went into the Eastern Sea, grabbed a turtle that was bigger than a mountain, took its four legs and put one at each of the four corners of the earth, supporting the four sides of heaven and earth.

However, the disaster had not come to an end, there was still a black dragon going out and causing trouble every day, hurting and eating people everywhere, damaging crops, doing many bad deeds. The people hated and feared him. After Nuwa heard this, she went into the water, captured the black dragon and lifted up her jeweled sword to kill him. Afraid, the black dragon quickly begged for forgiveness. Nuwa thought and then said, “Alright then. You go to a river in the North and there you must guard the waters for the benefit of the people!” The black dragon thanked Nuwa and flew away.

The disaster was finally over. Nuwa’s children on Earth, the men plowing and the women weaving, working at sunrise and resting at sunset, were living happy lives. Later generations of people praised Nuwa for her accomplishments, creating humankind and repairing Heaven, and affectionately refer to her as Mother Nuwa.

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This statue in Yucheng is of Nuwa repairing the sky and it is one of many similar around China.

Myths & Tales from China 01

Have you ever wanted to know about the myths and legends of another culture? How are they similar or different from your own? What are the stories that everyone knows as well as we Westerners know Noah’s Ark or Little Red Riding Hood? Well, now’s your chance to find out. In one of my language learning fits, I purchased some children’s fairy-tale books on a trip to China and spent many restless, dictionary-filled hours translating them into English. 

Please keep in mind, I didn’t write these, I’ve only translated them.  It’s a little sad to think about now, because I did all this work at a time before Google Translate. Just for giggles, I plugged the Chinese in to the translator and, to be honest, I was expecting word salad, but it came out pretty smoothly. This is my translation, not Google’s, but it really puts my efforts as a language learner and teacher into perspective that Google 2019 did in 0.3 seconds what took me several hours in 2010.

Once upon a time, I dreamed of turning it into a kind of bi-lingual children’s book series with mini language lessons, but the publishing just isn’t happening. Oh, why lie, I haven’t even tried. So, here it is — blogger style.


Pangu Splits the Sky and Earth

In a far distant age, a time immemorial, the Universe was like a huge egg the like of which had never been seen before nor since.  From the pitch blackness inside was born the ancestor of all mankind, Pangu. 

After sleeping inside the Egg for 18,000 years, Pangu finally awakened. He opened his eyes and looked all around, but he could see nothing besides the darkness. All over his body, from head to foot, he felt hot and dry. He wanted to stretch out his muscles, but he was so tightly caught up in the Egg that he couldn’t even move an inch. Just breathing was becoming more and more difficult.

Pangu became very angry. Effortlessly, he took hold of the ax at his side and brandished it at the darkness before his eyes, chopping it in two — Crash! After a burst of deafening sound, the pieces of Primordial Chaos gradually began to separate. Those parts which were clear and light slowly rose upward and became the Sky. Those parts that were murky and heavy sank down little by little and became the Earth. All around, it became brighter and brighter. Pangu suddenly felt clear and refreshed.

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Sky and Earth were separated, but Pangu was worried that they could still rejoin. Therefore, he spread both his feet apart and raised both his hands, and pushed against the Sky. Every day the Sky rose  by ten feet, and every day the Earth sank by ten feet, and Pangu grew bigger and taller along with them.

No one knows how many years passed, until finally the Sky could not go any higher nor could the Earth go any deeper. By this time, Pangu had exhaused all the strength in his body. He let out a long sigh, lay down on the Earth, and closed his eyes. This great hero died, but his body did not fade away at all. His left eye became the Sun, his right eye became the Moon, and his hair became the Stars. His four limbs and body became the Five Sacred Mountains, his blood became the rivers and lakes, his skin became ten thousand miles of fertile land, and his bones became the trees and flowers. His teeth became the rocks and metals, his marrow became bright pearls, his sweat became the rain and dew, and his last breath became the wind and clouds.

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Pangu used his life and his whole body to create a beautiful world, and set aside a vast and limitless treasure for future generations.


Nuwa Creates Mankind

Pangu had established the Sky and the Earth and used his body to make the Sun, Moon and Stars, as well as the Mountains, Rivers, Grasses and Trees. The murky air that remained between Earth and Sky slowly transformed into the Insects, Fish, Birds and Beasts, bringing life into the deathly still World.

One day, the goddess Nuwa who had the head and torso of a woman, but the body of a snake, was traveling along this lush and verdant open country. She looked all around: up and down the mountain range, along the swiftly flowing rivers, at the plants striving for splendor, at the hundreds of birds singing as they flew through the sky, at the beasts galloping across the ground, at the fish frolicking in the water, and at the tiny insects jumping in the grass. Ordinarily, it would be said that the World was already quite beautiful, but overall she felt a kind of loneliness she couldn’t express.

At a loss, she sat beside a pond and looked at her own reflection in the still water. Suddenly, a leaf floated down into the pond, and the stillness of the water was full of ripples that made her reflection start to sway and rock. She suddenly realized why she wasn’t happy: there was no other kind of creature like her in the world. She thought about this, then immediately swept up some clay from the bank of the pond. Next, using her own reflection as a guide, she began to shape it. She kneaded and kneaded the clay, and when she was done it was a very small thing that looked more or less like herself. It also had five senses and seven qiao, as well as two hands and two feet. After she finished her work, she placed the thing on the ground where it unexpectedly came to life. Nuwa was truly happy and she shaped many more. She called these tiny things “Humans”

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The humans gathered around Nuwa, cheering and frolicking for joy; they were extremely lively. Nuwa’s lonely heart all at once became nice and warm. She thought she would make everywhere in the World have Humans, so she shaped one, and another one. But after all, the world is so big. She worked for ages, until both hands were numb from the work, but the little humans she shaped were still too few upon the face of the big Earth. She thought that going about it this way would never work. Just then, she broke off a handy nearby vine, extended it into the quagmire, dipping it in the mud, then shook it towards the dry ground. The result was that the little drops of mud each became a tiny person that looked just like the ones she had shaped using her hands. This was not only faster, but created more at once. Nuwa saw this new method was quite effective, and she sprinkled the mud with increasing energy until the whole of the Earth was full of people. 

Nuwa then made it so Men and Women could get married and raise children so that humankind would continue on from that time to this.

Letters From China (Holidays 2007)

As the year slides to it’s final months, let’s take a look back a whole decade and see what my very first holiday season overseas was like. In many ways it seemed like western holidays were a bit of a novelty in China (not unlike how Chinese New Year is in the West?). Thanksgiving Dinner specials at expat restaurants were the only place to find turkey and cranberry sauce; and Christmas was entirely bereft of religious overtones (not a single nativity, angel, or baby Jesus anywhere!) focusing instead on Santa, beautiful lights, and fun gatherings, which since I’m not actually Christian are really my favorite parts. Happy Holidays!


Nov 23, 2007 at 10:21pm [American Thanksgiving]

It was strange to celebrate this holiday so far from home, but it turned out pretty good.

I had a class in the early morning, so we headed into Beijing after lunch. We did some shopping, and stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing Christmas muzak, which was vaguely cool.

We had reservations at a place called Grandma’s Kitchen, and we had a small map to it on the back of thier card. The interesting thing here is that it was in a Soho compound, and there are about 80 of those in the city, and the girl who made the reservations thought it was the one at Dawanglu, when it was actually at Yong’anli, 2 subway stops over. I managed to figure out what part of the city it was in from the map, but even in that complex there were like 7 Soho buildings, labeled by giant letters in front (I should have thought to take a pic, but we were lost). It took us quite a while, and three times asking directions (in Chinese) to get there, and then one of us (Kevin) had to go back to the subway station to meet Michelle, because she was meeting us there and went to the wrong place.

After much adventure, we all arrived. The place was empty at first, although by the middle of our meal it was packed. I was really surprised to see so many Chinese people there for the holiday dinner. The menu included a full 5 course dinner, not all of which was traditional American T-day stuff, but it was all tasty.

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The first course was a choice of bacon wrapped shrimp or stuffed mushroom, I ordered the shrimp, but traded one out for a mushroom. Both were good. The second course was salad, I got the spinach and pear, it was also nice. The third course was awesome, a rich pumpkin soup.

The main course included turkey with gravey, sweet potatoes which were mixed with a touch of cinnamon and the white thing on top is a marshmallow with a little lemony bit in the middle, which was a really nice combo with the cinnamoned yams, carrots (mediocre), bread stuffing that I avoided, cranberry sauce which was quite nice, and for no apparent reason, baked beans (they were out of mashed potatoes). And I chose the pumpkin pie for dessert, which was almost, but not quite, as good as mom’s.

Over dessert we went around and said what we were thankful for, and for me this included my friends and family at home who support me in my crazy life, finding a decent job here in China, and finding good people here to share the experience with. We told stories of Thanksgivings past, and generally had a really good night. I took some pictures of us, and had some pics taken so you could see the people as well as the food.

From left to right its Bill, Kevin, Michelle, Erwin and me.

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I love and miss you all, I hope you had wonderful Thanksgivings wherever you were.

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:28pm

Although I have actually seen a couple Christmas trees around town (amazing though that is), I decided the only real way to have my fill of Christmas spirit was to decorate!

So I went to Wal-Mart and got a little plastic tree (20 kuai), and a string of lights to put on it… (16 Kuai), and some cute little painted pine cone ornaments (honestly the most tasteful ones available, most were gawdawful plastic do-dads, there were some nicer glass ball types, but they were too big for my mini-tree), and a Santa topper (ok, not really a topper, its really an ornament that I cut the string off of and poked a hole in the bottom of so I could shove it on the top of the tree, but hey…14 kuai)

However, the lights were blinkey, and not in a nice way, in a terribly erratic way, and like so many Chinese things, they were broken 5 minutes after I got them, and the middle of the strand stopped lighting at all, I have no idea why. So I went to the local store and bought new lights in the shape of little presents, which I like much better. (10 kuai)

And so as not to waste my blinky lights, I hung them in my window which faces the street to spread my Christmas cheer to all passers by.

Dec 16, 2007 at 7:21pm

Its been strange, building up to Christmas in a place where every street isn’t lined with decorations, houses aren’t competing for the biggest, brightest light show, department stores aren’t spouting Christmas carols 24/7 and there are no bell ringing Santas out front of the grocery stores. Some days it seems like it must still be November.

There are a few trees and decorations here and there, plastic trees and paper Santas. I’ve got a tree, of course, and my window lights, which are the only Christmas lights on display I’ve seen in Yanjiao.

I went to Wal-mart in Beijing today, though and there are bigger trees. It looked like some workers were setting up a light display, and there was even a store that had reindeer out front.

I treated myself to a gingerbread latte at Starbucks, and sat amid the Christmas music and decorations and almost felt like I was just in another city in America… almost.

But one of the amazing things I noticed in the middle of all this complete lack of Christmasosity (I can’t even find candy canes), was that my students, 20+ tho they may be, are like little children about Christmas. Its still magical and amazing to them, because they haven’t done it every year of their lives.

I downloaded some classic Christmas tv, like Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph and of course the Grinch (the good cartoon version), and as I sat in the darkened classroom, watching these cartoons for the umpteenth time and taking some solace in the sameness and familiarity of them, I realized something really amazing.

As I sat there listening to my students laughing out loud at the Grinch’s dog Max *for the first time in thier lives*, it was an amazing experience for me to hear that laughter and realize that these young adults were enjoying Christmas tv for the first time.

Say whatever you want about Americanization, cultural pollution or even the evils of Christianity, but the fact is, I’m not Christian, and Christmas is older than America, and whatever these kids have in their own culture, there isn’t a winter holiday that’s getting pushed aside to make room for Christmas, so if they can find out from me that Christmas is joy, and cheer and goodwill and cookies, then that makes me pretty darn happy.

Dec 17, 2007 at 9:37pm

Despite the fact that most of you seem to have forgotten I’m in the future, and that today was my birthday… and more gruelingly the fact that I’ve got a horrible cold, and that I’ve finally broken into my third decade, as my mother was so kind to point out, and its freezing cold and I had to start giving finals today… it turned out to be a good birthday after all.

The morning was ok, I woke up too early, but it gave me some extra time to chat online. All my students wished me a happy birthday at the exam this morning, and a couple even gave me presents. One boy gave me some dried fruit snacks and a girl gave me a lovely Peiking opera mask miniature of the monkey king.

100_0693After the exams I went to lunch and enjoyed some hot soup, then came home to grade papers, not really thinking much of the day. The school sent over a cute little cake which i decided to hold on to until I could share it with some folks at dinner tomorrow. I graded papers, looked at more evil forms and watched some X-files, all the while becoming more icky feeling and more cold.

Finally it got to be time to go to my evening class, which I didn’t want to go to cause I’m tired and sick and have to be up super early tomorrow for another final. But I drag myself across campus in the cold, I get up to the 9th floor and see one of my students going into the classroom and closing the door behind her.

I thought, ‘well that’s odd, I could swear she saw me’. Then when I tried to go into the room, another student asked me to wait outside, and when they finally let me in, they had prepared a birthday cake with candles and everything, and they sang me “happy birthday” in English and Chinese.

I couldn’t blow out the candle on the first try (probably because of my cold) but on the second try I actually blew it over (fortunately it was out first). The cake said “We ❤ U” with a picture of a heart, and was decorated with a huge frosting Santa. The cake was quite large enough for everyone in class to have a big piece. I didn’t have my camera, but several of the students took pictures on their phones and I asked them to email the pics to me, which I’ll post once they do. *(they never did)*

I honestly don’t remember the last time I had a surprise party. I’ve been organizing my own birthday parties for so long I figured here I am so far from home and I haven’t invited anyone to celebrate with me, so nothing will happen. It was so sweet and thoughtful of these students to organize even a simple cake and singalong that I feel like I really have had a happy birthday, in spite of some pretty overwhelming odds.

If this is anything to go on, I hope the whole decade is full of such happy surprises.

Dec 19, 2007 at 11:17pm

Wow. I have just gotten back after 4 hours of dinner and party.  The dinner was held in the hotel next door, in a huge room decorated with a Christmas tree and other festive decorations. We had so much good food, most of which was far less oily than my usual, and they even had french fries, which were fun to eat with chopsticks. They also had lots of booze, wine, beer and baijiu, as well as a homemade “wine” from one of the women there.

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It actually turned out to be pretty fun, as every 2-3 minutes someone else came by our table to make a toast, so we all got pretty toasty. We sang a Christmas song, and the Chinese sang us a song about friendship, then we went across campus to see the show the students had prepared.

The show was put on by the business department, so none of my students were there (there’s another party on Sunday night for that, I hear). There was singing, dancing, and performances by many unique instrumentalists (both the instruments and the players were unique).

There was a student dressed up as Santa Claus who gave us all Christmas cards and candy (I even got a Santa hat!).

I’m going to have to buy more batteries so I can take pictures of the parties in my classes and the one on Sunday night, as well as our ‘teachers only’ dinner on Christmas eve.

I thought for a while that I would miss out on Christmas by being here in China, but the faculty and students have gone out of their way to make us have a good Christmas, and even though the traditions aren’t quite the same, I definitely feel full of Christmas cheer.

Here’s the show: dancing girls, rapping guys, singers, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, accordion player, and a whole crowd of audience.

 

The students threw glitter and spray snow all over the teachers.

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Dec 26, 2007 at 5:20pm

I had 6 parties in all, one you’ve already seen was the department party, then there were 3 class parties and a school dance, and our teacher dinner. This post will have 2 of the class parties (the third one wasn’t much to look at), and the school dance.

Here’s the first class, they’re advanced conversation. They went to town decorating the room.

Here’s the school dance, I was warned it was going to be like a middle school dance with the girls on one side and the boys on the other, but there was a performance, which I missed most of because Kevin wanted to get drinks first.. the VP of the college asked me to sing. I couldn’t exactly refuse, so I sang one verse of silent night. And I got dragged out to dance quite a bit, and I noticed how much the smog affects me, since my lungs stayed on fire way worse than even at the Merc [a Seattle dance club]. But it was fun, and there was certainly lots of dancing.

And here is the last class party, once again, there was an abundance of decorating. In both cases the class monitors brought speakers to hook up an MP3 player to so we had music, people brought snacks and decorations, I brought Christmas bingo, a puzzle game and taught them some Christmas carols, including the 12 days, which was hilarious, at least for me. There was also dancing in the classes as well. They really like singing and dancing.

Merry Christmas from all the Chinese kids!

Dec 29, 2007 at 2:53am

The long awaited Christmas Eve Dinner. We went to a place called Cafe Europa, it was in the same giant shopping complex as Grandma’s Kitchen, but a totally different atmosphere. It was elegant, but not overstated, which was nice, since so many Chinese Christmas decorations are like 5 yr old meets raver kid style. There were 9 of us, and 9 is an auspicious number in China, so who knows, maybe we get some good luck.

Erwin, Michelle, Rebecca, Jonathan, Bill, Peter, Terry, Louise and myself.

It was a pleasant evening, the restaurant never got too crowded or noisy, but we weren’t the only people celebrating. We had some champagne and beer, and a (mostly) pleasant conversation, tho toward the end it devolved into “first date deal breakers” thanks to Peter.

The menu was very nice. We started off with a small foie gras appetizer, served over a tomato vinaigrette salad, entirely too many people were hesitant about the paté, but I thought it was lovely. This was followed by a salmon appetizer with a quail egg and salmon roe in addition to the normal onions and capers. This was my first salmon since leaving Seattle and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Then there was a lobster bisque, nice and rich.

Followed by I think the biggest pile of prime rib I’ve ever been served, huge thick slices, tender and well seasoned. YUM! It made me glad I hadn’t eaten much all day. Dessert was a mousse plate, there’s a white chocolate mousse which tasted a lot like devonshire cream, in a chocolate dish, and a milk chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.

On our way back to the main road toward a taxi, we passed these pretty lights and Peter redeemed himself by singing Christmas carols in harmony with me, which was fun.

Christmas (11)

When we got back to Yanjiao, we went to a local bar and stayed out drinking until 4am. (the people working there kept going to sleep behind the bar between rounds, but they never asked us to leave) I somehow got roped into doing tarot readings with a deck of playing cards, which amused everyone, and we finished off the evening with a rousing game of “I never”. Maybe not the most Christmassy ever, but there was a big tree decorated and lit up in the bar, and we had a toast at midnight to welcome Christmas in.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been hard to be away from you all during the holidays, but given the circumstances, I had a pretty good Christmas.


It makes me cringe just a little bit to read how totally Americentric and culturally illiterate I was back then, but on the other hand, it was having experiences like these that helped me grow into the person I am now. We all have to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll look back on my current blog entries and groan.

I can also see the slow detachment I’m having from Western holidays. I still like going to expat dinners, and I definitely still like decorating my home for Christmas, but every year it’s easier to focus on the holidays that the country I’m in is celebrating rather than pine for the celebrations I’m missing. Buddha’s Birthday has been one of my favorites here in Korea when everyone decorates in beautiful lanterns.

However you celebrate, and whoever you celebrate with, I hope you have some very happy holidays this year!

Letters From China (Fall 2007)

Looking at these entries from my time in China, I’m struck by the extremes of emotion that living abroad can engender. “I hate this!”, “I love this!”, “I’m dying!”, “I feel awesome!” It seems some things don’t change even after 10 years. I’m no longer surprised by these swings, but they certainly still happen. Despite this, I wouldn’t trade my life for another, and even on the downfalls I am grateful I got back up and kept on trying. Sadly, there are no beautiful photos accompanying these letters, but I hope the stories of the Best Pizza Ever and the Amazing Coat Bargain will nonetheless amuse.


Oct 29, 2007 at 6:35pm

Today my class read a chapter called “East Meets West” and it dealt in part with culture shock, and described 4 phases, honeymoon, hostility, humor and home. I’m not really sure I had a honeymoon phase this trip, mainly cause I think my entire 2 months in China in 2005 was that phase, I was just so excited to be there, nothing else mattered. I was still happy to be here when I arrived, but nothing so over the top giddy as my first trip.

I think I was mostly in a humor phase, just finding my feet and being more amused than angry at the differences. Plus I was meeting the new teachers and in many ways helping them to adjust to China for the first time, I was getting instruction about my job and how to get about town, so I was occupied and involved.

Recently I’ve been pretty depressed, and trying to figure out why. I know that at least part of it is a frustration with the culture. The fact that it took me WEEKS to get the bank stuff sorted out even though I had the help of one of the school administrators, the fact that I feel like i’m on display half the time I’m in public and the fact that people keep bugging me to teach their kids or practice with them in the guise of friendship have all been really aggravating. There are things I know are just cultural differences, but knowing is not keeping me from being upset.

I tried looking up different ways to deal with this kind of thing, and a lot of it hinges on stuff like arts and crafts, exploring the area or reading about the culture, stuff you do alone… and I don’t think that’s really going to help me much. I need more interaction.

I love my classes, often they’re the best part of my day, well the part I feel best during, anyway, but because of the student teacher relationship, the age difference and more importantly because of the cultural differences, I don’t feel like I can have more than casual conversations and interactions with them outside of class, and hardly anyone who’s not a student speaks any English and my Chinese is just about enough to get around and buy stuff, but not to have deep conversations in.

Even the other Chinese people closer to my age who work here don’t really fit in the peer group category, I often feel like I have to avoid them or they will ask me to do more work, tutor someone else’s kid or something…

There’s other foriegn teachers, but I don’t see them all that often because our schedules are at such odds.

Its getting really cold, so going out wandering is getting unpleasant for more reasons than just being stared at, talked over or pawed at.

I was trying to watch some Buffy while grading papers and the disc stopped working and it was just too much. It’s so stupid, and I hate that its affecting me like this. This is why I wanted someone to come with me. I think I could deal with the culture shock OR the isolation, but I don’t know what to do with both. I haven’t had a hug since I left Seattle and I think all the one’s you gave me at the party wore off finally.

I’m sorry, I guess, for unloading here, but I’m lost. I’m supposed to be tougher than this, but so much of my strength comes from the support of others and I feel so cut off from that now.

I’ve tried to talk to a few people individually about it, but I don’t feel like I’m really getting it across well enough, or fast enough or whatever enough.

We don’t have to have anything specific to talk about, but there’s this whole free talking thing with gtalk, and just being able to hear your voices, even if we’re just on while surfing the web or whatever to be able to talk like we’re in the same room…. I told you all before that you would be my life line here, and while I believe what you’ve told me, that I’ve not been forgotten, thinking about me doesn’t help if you don’t say something too.

I have 10 more weeks till the break, and then another 25 after it. (hopefully there’s still a may trip to China in the offing for some of you at least).

I don’t even know how many people read this anymore, only a handful respond. I can’t do this alone.

*2017 update* Culture shock and homesickness are the bane of the expat life. Over the years I’ve found more ways of dealing with culture shock, but the things I identified here stayed true. Social interaction is a big deal for me, even though I’ve gotten good at going out and exploring alone, I still do best when I can share my life with other people. On the other hand, I’m not sure I have anything like “homesickness” left after so long. I miss some feelings, or the ability to just head over to a friend’s house, but when I think of “going home” it just means my cozy little apartment here in Busan, and I think when I move, my sense of home will move with me.

Of course, as you keep reading you’ll see why I call culture shock an emotional roller coaster… that still hasn’t changed.

Nov 4, 2007 at 9:24pm

I’ve been posting a lot about feeling bad, and I want to let you all know, that there are good times too. Today, in fact, was a really nice day.

First I slept in, which is always a good way to start a day. Plus since my lil bedroom space heater had done its thing it was nice and toasty.

I needed to get food for the bunny, so I got dressed and set out for the pet store. The weather was wonderful, sunny and not too smoggy and actually not too cold. The walking street was packed, and there were so many kinds of foods. I had to pass thru the whole street to get to the pet shop, so I took note of all the foodses and picked up several tasties on the way back home.

I got a cool breakfasty thing, there’s a thin crepe with an egg cracked onto it and also spread thin, with sauce and green onions and some kind of crackly pork rind thing all folded up together. I got a kind of fried sweet potato pankakey thing. And I got what looked alot like rice crispy treats, but turn out to have less flavor.

I came back and watched some tv and surfed the web for good ecards for my mom’s bday (which is today by the way, so wish mom a happy bday).

Around 3pm 4 of us got together to go to Beijing to check out a Pizza restaurant, and oh my god, I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy pizza and beer so much. I may pay for it tomorrow with the wheat thing, but OOOOHHHHH it was SOOOOOO good.

Just walking into the restaurant was amazing, it was like we’d left China. The decor was all dark hardwoods and stone, it had a pizzaria atmosphere without being faux Italian. There was American rock music playing in the background and the SMELL was wonderful.

We ordered 3 pizzas, since I really only intended to have a small taste. Everyone ordered mediums, which turned out to be 15 inches across! They got a veggie, a meat, and a supreme (called Garbage Pail) and they were seriously the best pizzas I think I’ve ever had.

I’ve always known food was linked to the limbic system, but I don’t think there have been very many occasions when food has caused that much enjoyment.

We told the waitress to compliment the cook for us, and he turned out to be the owner. He came up to see us. The owner is an American, looked very west coast, bleach blonde, lots of tattoos (kinda cute too), and very nice.

There was, of course, much good conversation over dinner, and a general happiness that infused the whole group. Pizza, beer and rock music… it was a little piece of American heaven… and I hope I’ll never take these wonderful things for granted again.

We headed home somewhat reluctantly, but the bus was warm and we all found seats (not as common as you might think), and I got to have a nice birthday morning convo with mom, and now I’m off to a warm shower and a soft bed.

It was a good day.

*2017 update* Although I no longer rely on pizza to alleviate my need for Western food (which still happens, but I think I just like variety), that little crepe thing I found in the street market remains my all time favorite street food to this day. I can’t find it anywhere but China and so haven’t had it in 5 years, but if you ever get the chance, eat one.

Nov 9, 2007 at 10:12pm

So, I went shopping today at the Silk Market. I tell you three hours of shopping should not be so tiring but wow I’m pooped.

I got some nice things, gifts for some of you and a new winter jacket for myself. But I want to share the joy of shopping in China.

So for hair clips, the starting price was usually about 120, followed by me laughing and saying no way. Then they ask for a price, and I say 15 (followed by common humorous 50/15 confusion), followed by them laughing and saying ‘no way’. Then they offer 80, I say no and begin to wander away slowly. They say 60, and I just shake my head and wander a little further (the trick is not to get out of range too fast), they say give me a better offer, and I say 20, they try in vain for 40, and I leave the stall (still moving slow) then they call me back and say ‘ok ok your price’.

This varies some, but seemed to be the standard.

The COAT was hilarious. I went looking for a coat last for just this reason. By the time I found a nice coat, I only had 300 left in my purse. And here’s the fun. She says, normally I charge this (showing me a calculator reading 4800) but since you live in China of course I give you special price (shows calculator with 2200). Now the coat is nice, but there’s no way I’d pay that even if I had it, and she knows that, there is the art of lying in that we know we’re lying to each other, but since we both know, its like a little ritual act.

So I say, no I can’t do that price, and she says give me your best price, and I type in 200. She whines a while, oh my factory doesn’t even sell it to me for this! I can’t sell it for 200. She counters with 1800. I counter with 400 (I honestly thought I still had 400 on me). And the ‘oh its too low’ begins again, whereupon I tell her that’s all I’ve got. She says I can use a Visa card, I tell her I don’t have one, which took some convincing, but was true at the time, no way I’d bring a credit card in that place. Then to prove I only have 400, I open my purse to show her, and it turns out I only have 300. Now, she really doesn’t want to believe me, so I end up basically emptying out my purse to show her its all the money I have on me. I’m sorry, I say, but i just don’t have any more. And as I collect my things to leave the stall, she breaks down and says, ok since you only have 300, I will sell it to you for that, protesting all the way that she shouldn’t and what a deal I’m getting and I have to tell my friends to come back, but tell them I paid more so they won’t expect such a low price, etc. which of course I promise to do (remember the lying ritual), and we go away happy.

Of course all prices are RMB, so for USD divide by 7.5…. I love this place!

Dec 3, 2007 at 3:37pm

Some of you know by now that I’ve been sick for a while. Last Wed. I woke up and felt like crap, and I’ve kinda been icky ever since.

Its a lovely nausea, which is mostly gone if I hold still with an empty stomach, it rises with a vengeance if I move too much or eat.

I missed class Wed and Thurs morning. Thursday evening I told one of the people in the dept that I might need to go to a doctor, and she went with me to a pharmacy and picked out some Chinese medicine for me, which not only didn’t really help the nausea, but made me horribly gassy.

Friday I went to the hospital, there is no other way to see a doctor here. Wow.

We got there by taxi, I had to check in and pay a 3 kuai registration fee. Then I went to the doctor who asked some questions, mostly about diarrhea, and decided it was probably food poisoning (translated as “dirty food”), but that he wanted me to have a blood test anyway.

I take the doctors paper to the cashier to pay for the blood test (20 kuai) then go to have my blood taken in a whole other part of the building, by nurses who use iodine as a sterilizer, and the tubes for blood collection weren’t vacuum sealed, so they drew my blood with a syringe then squirted it into an open plastic test tube (did i mention they weren’t wearing gloves?)… GAH!

Anyway the test turns out to be a general blood analysis and the results sheet shows my levels and the acceptable range for each level, thus ensuring that the doctor doesn’t actually have to know how to interpret the results, only to see if they’re in the right range.

They are, and I take the results BACK to the doctor who says that my illness is not serious, and offers me amoxicillin. Well, first he says an IV transfusion of “medicine”, and it was only after lots of asking on my part that they finally admitted what the medicine was.

Amoxicillin is an antibiotic, a pretty strong one, the main side effects of which are nausea and diarrhea… so not to good for an upset tummy. They also tried to tell me the “medicine” would kill a virus, which is not possible.

After lots of arguing in which I tried to explain that I was not going to take amoxicillin unless I was MUCH sicker, they finally offered to give me “something to protect the stomach lining”, my best guess is an antacid of some kind. And they all thought I was crazy for refusing the antibiotics.

Now, just to be clear, an IV of amoxicillin is standard for any illness here. My students told me that an IV transfusion of medicine is what’s done regardless of what you have, so I not only don’t have any great feeling that I’m missing something the doctor knows about mysterious Chinese stomach ailments, I left the hospital feeling like I knew more than the doctor.

Oh, the mystery alternate medicine turned out to be 75 kuai and I didn’t end up buying it, so we’ll see if I can kick this on my own.

I’m slowly able to eat more, now, and I got a cheap blender to be able to make tofu banana smoothies. I’ll be doing ginger infusions and generally taking it easy, and avoiding Chinese medicine.

I haven’t found a place to buy western medicine yet, Wal-Mart proved a bust.

*2017 update* That mystery stomach ailment lasted a while.  I survived on tofu smoothies, orange juice and snickers bars… I think it might have been a reaction to the oil in the Chinese food (sooooo much oil) and even when the nausea passed I still had to take regular breaks from Chinese food or it would come back.


It’s fall here in Korea these days too, and it seems that health issues are the theme. It’s nothing serious (I think), but I’m going to a doctor or dentist 1-3 times a week and it’s taking all my time, energy, and spare income. Looking at my photo journals, I feel like I am doing so little adventuring in comparison to last year or years before, but sometimes we just have to buckle down and take care of the necessities. Currently that’s teeth, body, and a new job hunt (which will likely mean a new country, or at least a new city after February).

There’s still plenty I love about Korea, but right now I’m loving the affordable and efficient health care system more than the festivals. Less fun, but whenever I see one of my US friends post a gofundme for medical bills or complain about fighting an insurance company for coverage they paid for, I get seriously grateful that if I have to spend the better part of a year getting poked and prodded by medical/dental professionals, at least I can afford it and never have to argue over my national health coverage. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy more stories from my very first year abroad in China! Thanks for reading ❤

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.