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Friday, March 31, 2006

Reflection -- two months in China

China. I see this vast country much differently than I did before my opportunity to live and teach in Wuhan.

Before, China was all about the place.

I thought of China as the Great Wall, the Three Gorges and the massive dam built to tame the Yangtze River, Beijing, Shanghai...all the locations most Westerners think about. While I've had the opportunity to visit all these sites during my time here, they no longer define China to me.

Today, China is all about its people.

When I think about China the images that flash through my mind are the faces of my Chinese friends: Min and her family, Cathy, Jessie, Shaw and Jane, Lily, Zhang Ping, Yun Aiqin, Britannia, David, my International Marketing students and the kind folks in Shanghai including Dr. Wang, Amelia AKA "Professor of Shopping", Alex, Rebecca, Helen and their incredibly wonderful driver.

I also think of my new Western friends with whom I have had the chance to share so many trials and triumphs of learning to live in a totally different culture. Their faces and the times we've experienced flash through my mind: Bob and Lorraine, Marilyn, the folks at Mr. Mai's, boy Tyler, Paul, Katie, and Serge.

As I step on the plane today in Beijing to head home, my thoughts are of all the people I'm leaving here in China. And while this fact makes me incredibly sad—more than I could have ever imagined—I am comforted by one thing. China's people have changed me...and I know I must return.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"The First Ring"

Lyn, our tour guide, was INCREDIBLE. Part storyteller, part entertainer and just downright Ms. Personality; she did a wonderful, wonderful job showing us her home of Beijing. We began our morning at the Summer Palace which is about 1.5 hours' ride out (less if you aren't gridlocked on the freeway) of Beijing. The Summer's pretty incredible and I can't imagine it in all its glory when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Here's where the storytelling Lyn kept us in suspense as she engaged us in the drama about the original 'dragon lady' empress who was so obsessed with power she killed her son and nephew to retain control for 40 years.

Afterwards we returned to the heart of the city: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. These are also inside what's known as the "first ring" of Beijing. The city was originally walled and as it has grown and radiated out they have added over the centuries additional rings, so there are a total of five rings in Beijing. It's how you gain perspective on where something is. My hotel is within the first ring.

My Chinese friends in Wuhan had advised me that northern China was more focused on size and bigness, while in southern China everything is more 'delicate.' I now see the wisdom of their words.

I was overwhelmed with how BIG Tiananmen Square is. And Chairman Mao's mausoleum is impressively big (bigger than the Yorba Linda library!). And when it comes to huge, the Forbidden City is mammoth.

My feet were dragging by the time we made it back to our bus and my role as tourist came to an end.

The Last Supper

Returning from a long day of walking and sightseeing I was really hungry. After the driver deposited me at my hotel I decided to see what its restaurant offered: mostly American food and at exorbitant prices. (The cheapest meal was 68 RMB...that amount will feed 5 people very nicely in Wuhan) Unwilling to have my "last supper" in China replicate what I will be eating shortly I decided to explore the neighborhood. So, I headed towards the lobby door.

I saw a gaggle of Western tourists and a handful of Chinese visitors leave simultaneously. The Westerners turned left, towards the KFC, Sizzler, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, offerings. The Chinese folks turned right. It was a 'no brainer' in my mind. I turned right. I figured they would know where to fill my desire for rice, the green vegetable Lorraine and I always order, and bit of fried pork.

Correct decision!

Two blocks away they turned into a restaurant where every face was Chinese. I entered and quickly learned no one spoke English. Now, if I had done this in December I would have turned around and made an escape. But, because my Chinese and Western friends have taught me how, as an illiterate, to order and I have learned what foods I like and don't like, I didn't think too much of it.

Making a hand gesture to see a menu and holding up one finger indicating I'm alone, the waitress showed me to the only vacant table in the place. Fortunately, the menu had photos so I could recognize many of the items they had since I'd already experienced them before.

I found what I was looking for and pointed at them when she returned.

As the food made its way out to my table I learned of one slight mistake in my ordering. The fried pork was half red peppers! Oh my, my glasses or the photos did me in. But, I persevered reasoning that a lot of hot, spicy food was just what my cold needed. It's perfect for clearing the head!

While eating the 20-something folks across at the two tables followed my dining with great interest. Clearly, they were looking at what I ordered—one boy's eyes betrayed his thoughts when he saw me eating pork and chili—and the girl smiled as I used my chopsticks in the proper manner.

On the way out a small boy, about 4 or 5, stopped by my table and gave me a toothy grin and said something I took to be a greeting. Being a foreigner I'm now accustomed to people walking up to practice English, asking what country I'm from or using hand gestures that they want their photo taken with a foreigner. I don't know what the deal was with today, but three little boys of the same age for some reason took a shine to me—this is totally mysterious to me Marilyn since it's always you the little kids love, but you weren't here so I guess I would do—as one boy indicated he wanted his photo taken with me during the tour.

Well, I finished my meal—it was enough for two people so yes I left about half the food—and got the check: 32 RMB. Smiling I paid the waitress and left. I must admit I was a bit pleased with myself for not taking the easy road, but tackling the tougher road...and it made all the difference in dining delights! (Lorraine, that line is for you!)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Destination: The Great Wall

At 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening someone from the travel agency called to advise me that I should be ready for pick up Wednesday morning at 7:00. Swell. The hotel starts serving the 68R MB "free breakfast" that I'd already pre-paid at 6:30 and I wasn't about to lose out on this, being of Scottish descent. So, I promptly swooped down at the appointed hour; they opened precisely at 6:30 and I was out and in my room awaiting "the call" from the driver when it rang at 6:50.

I rendezvoused with the bus that was collecting an assortment of tourists for our day together. These folks include: a 50's aged couple from New York, three young women who recently graduated from medical school in Maryland and were about to start residency, a 30-something Chinese couple who spoke no English, a late 50's man from Malaysia whose grandparents left China, a young Hong Kong man in his first job out of college who was now a resident from Australia, the driver (who I felt safe with), our female guide who spoke good English and yours truly.

The only thing I knew about this tour was that it included the Ming tombs and the Great Wall. I never imagined everything else that was thrown in between. The young man from Australia and I had a lot of fun of the "in between" items in our running dialog today.

First, we stopped at a jade factory and massive store. Shopping opportunity! I bought nothing. Next, we visited the Ming tombs. However, our next stop was rather fascinating. Thanks to Chairman Mao, Chinese naturopathic and acupuncture experienced a major renaissance in the 50's. As an outgrowth of this, there's a sprawling place dedicated to expanding this knowledge to other countries (I think this is where my chiropractor studied) and they are very proud of this fact. We were ushered down the halls and into a small lecture room where a Chinese man explained the high level concepts of the healing arts. Then two doctors and their assistants in their white smocks appeared. Apparently our ying and yang was about to be examined and the prognosis and remedy prescribed. I declined. Interestingly, the amount of all Rx recommendations ran between 420 – 480 RMB.

Afterwards we moved to a cloisonné factory and after watching them at work we got, yes, more opportunity to shop. I bought nothing. (Having been in China I now know the going prices for many things; alas, these items were 3x as expensive as they should have been and signed that said "no bargaining.") This activity was closely followed with lunch which happened to adjoin the shopping mall. The Great Wall—my reason to go on this tour—was next.

We arrived at 2:00 p.m. We were to leave at 4:00 p.m. Initially I thought, swell, two hours for the one thing I wanted to see today. However, that was sufficient time since I was ready to depart at 3:30. As we wound our way through the proactive proprietors our tour guide took our additional money—yes, this wasn't included in the price—to pay the 60 RMB to get a ride up to the middle level of the wall and thus decrease our strenuous walking. I was very willing to part with the sum given my last experience in climbing stairs. Nothing prepared me for what happened next.

As we walked through what looked like an ancient walk way we strode straight into what I can only describe as a misplaced carnival ride. They had individual cars on tracks aned you jumped into one and they pulled you up the hill. All of us were flabbergasted. And, I must confess the ex-amusement park employee that I am had flash backs. This was like standing in line at Knott's Berry Farm to climb aboard the Log Ride, only as a solo. Only there was no water splash at the end. Not quite what I was expecting at the Great Wall.

We clamored out of the vehicles and proceeded to wind our way through half of humanity. (I had always seen the Great Wall without people on it, silly me to think it would be desolate when I arrived.) The steps were old since they were well worn in many places, but it was clearly rebuilt. It took about 30 minutes to crest the first major landmark in the wall. Dutifully all of us on our bus took pictures of each other. The wind was blasting and making my runny nose runnier and my contacts scream. So, I opted to return and ride the amusement park ride to the parking lot and wait for the group. I had accomplished my mission: to walk the Great Wall and have a photo to prove it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Off to Beijing

When I left Wuhan and my new friends in December it was sad, but I knew I'd return in March. Today when I left I didn't know when—or if—I would see my new Chinese and Western friends. So, it was a very sad parting...all I can say it, thank goodness for email.

Britannia arrived at 10:30 with the driver to take me to the airport. Lorraine saw me off—I will miss you very much, my friend—and we began the 1.5 hour drive to the airport. Upon arrival Britannia helped me check in. Like last time, I was informed my bag was over weight. How much or why wasn't included in the request for money: 230 RMB. Britannia translated this to me and apparently my quick and loud response, while in English, to the woman who uttered these words made an impact and the price immediately lowered to 150 RMB. I knew the bag was lighter than in December when they made me pay this extortion, but decided to just shell it out and get it over with.

The flight was uneventful. And, when I landed the magical sign appeared: Laird Magee Tyler. A young woman, Amanda, held it aloft as I walked from the baggage claim area. She swept me off to the car that awaited us and we boarded and set off for the Holiday Inn in downtown Beijing. (My room looks like "anywhere USA" except for the electrical outlets....quite a change from my apartment on the university campus.)

Somewhat desensitized to driving conditions here, I use the 'don't watch' approach. I had, however, noticed our driver was, in my opinion, maintaining a proctology view of the preceding car's bumper and showed a slow brake/foot reaction to match. Rather typical, so I didn't give it much more thought. Until, that is, he crashed into the car in front of us going at about 25 MPH. Now, how many tourists can claim to have been in a car accident on the Beijing freeway at rush hour? I'm now a member of that elite club.

Having witnessed as a bystander a similar accident in Wuhan, I wondered if the response would be the same and we'd be here all night with numerous police officers. Our driver exited the car and began discussing the experience with the woman who emerged. Her car wasn't damaged much, but I could see the hood of ours took a major hit with it jutting into the air by about two feet. The whole discussion took about 15 minutes. My only worry was being rear-ended, but that wasn't a problem since the traffic came to a stand still and annoyed drivers let go with their horns to express dismay at us since we served as the cork to the traffic flow.

I was told my guide would call me tonight. I've not left my hotel room since arrival; it's now 9:00 p.m. and I've not heard, we'll see if I'm off in the morning to the Great Wall or not. Tune in tomorrow.

The endless climb

Between the glare of the sun, dust, and cigarette smoke my contacts were screaming at me by the time we returned to our boat, so I moved to my glasses. Mistake. We were to experience the crescendo of our day on the Yanghze that evening and little did I know how much I would pine for my contacts.

After having a "late lunch" at 4:30—yes we paid extra—Michael came to collect us at 6:00 to see an ancient temple at White King City. Applying our new strategy for disembarking by purposefully being slow and getting at the back of the lemming brigade, we left the ship, walked the gang plank and saw 300 stairs awaiting us. Now, these weren't ordinary stairs. Marilyn said previously experience them and said there had been more to climb in October, but since the Yangtze had swallowed the ones lower down, we were just facing 300 ancient stone steps. What this means is my Western sized foot is nearly as big as each stair and sometimes bigger. And, it's the steepest staircase I've ever seen or climbed.

Michael bounded up the stairs. Marilyn and I trundled behind like little old ladies huffing and puffing and sweating like pigs. As we climbed I thought, uh oh, with all the lemmings pushing us upward this will be total hell when we return in the dark, since I didn't expect them to be lighted. (I was right)

We reached the top of the hill and unlike the Rocky movie, we had no energy to rejoice. Next, we walked through more shops with enthusiastic proprietors and boarded a bus to go up the hill towards the temple. Marilyn questioned Michael about this. She knew from experience the bus she had ridden on prior trips deposited her at the door. But, no, this time we would be plopped at the bottom of yet another staircase climb of 150-200 more steep stairs....and very proactive vendors.

The lemmings took to the stairs and I nearly toppled several times as did Marilyn. Needless to say that by the time we stood at the top—after having Marilyn snap my photo below a 153.5 meter sign that would disappear under the waters of the Yangtze by September 2006—I wasn't in the best of spirits. I did, however, consider the just rewards of the stairs being permanently swallowed by the Yangtze. All I could think about was my return trip down nearly 500 stairs in the dark with my glasses on and my sense of balance compromised.

Michael kicked into tour guide mode and began the history of the temple. I told the two of them I would sit and recover from my experience. After 20 minutes I heard the boat give its warning blast. I knew I had to get down the stairs before the big rush started, because that was all I needed to topple down the stone stairs in the dark. So, I headed back figuring we'd all meet back at the boat.

We did. Marilyn I believe knew I'd make it back by myself, but Michael was frantic. When I finally crossed the threshold of our boat, I tried to tell the front desk my name, since I knew Michael had to say we were all there before we took off. Alas, no one spoke English, so I just stayed in the smoke filled room and waited. In about 15 minutes Marilyn arrived and she called Michael on his cell phone.

That evening done, we went to our room and removed sweat soaked clothing. I had an ominous feeling...this is exactly what happens when I get a cold. Sure enough, that's what happened.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Lemmings on the loose

On my first trip to China in December I quickly learned the difference in personal space between Western and Asian cultures. So, I am accustomed to this. Also, I have experienced what being caught up in a REAL crowd is like, both in Wuhan and Shanghai. However, the introduction of a being on a Chinese citizens' tour of their wonderful country wasn't an initiation I had anticipated.

The next day was Saturday and we began our fully-packed adventure up all three of the Three Gorges. Michael came to fetch us and get us downstairs where he said we'd board a smaller boat and then would transfer to wooden boats. He acted like we were in a hurry so we just followed along. Descending to the first floor Marilyn and I quickly learned we hadn't even begun docking procedures and already we were caught in a crowd of eager tourists who wanted to be at their destination now.

Looking around, since I tower over nearly everyone, I could see we were at least a good 15 minutes away from any chance of disembarking. As we stood there feeling like two sardines slowly squeezed into the can, Marilyn mentioned how dangerous a situation this was. She's right. It was. It's then I started thinking about the ship's balance, of all 300 passengers concentrated in one place. I arrested my thoughts; can't do anything right now, I reasoned. Closer and closer everyone bunched together as the pent up anticipation built. Elbows, knees, hands, body odor, cigarette was a bit much for me. However, I hadn't anticipated what would happen next.

As we docked the sardines turned into spawning salmon, desperate to fight their way up stream to spawn. The door opened and all I can say is I have an appreciation for what it must be to be a lemming...hurling forward with the force and velocity of the collective. Being caught up in this lemming lunge is what I would imagine a sinking ship or a building on fire would be like...swept along without much control of your personage. A totally alien experience, but a normal one within this culture, Marilyn and I discussed—after we survived the beach assault—how to change our strategy with Michael.

We continued our travels and switched to another boat. Michael came by to tell us that we would dock at several places and then go to the wooden boats. Then, unexpected by us, he got off the boat. Marilyn and I discussed his departure...something totally unexpected since it was our understanding he was our guide and would be with us at all times. Hum...

Fortunately, Marilyn has lived in China for 6 years and while she hasn't mastered the language, she has been 'around the block' enough times, and this made her 4th trip up the 3 Gorges, we felt relatively okay.

In about an hour we docked and we assaulted the docks which was lined with food and trinket sellers. Confused, we disembarked, not knowing when the boat would take off, since we don't speak Chinese. So, we did what a lemming does, follow the rest of the pack. It was interesting to see what the Chinese purchased as souvenirs. Neither of us saw anything of interest so we walked around until we heard the boat's horn blare and made haste to the ship. It pushed out quickly and we headed towards our next destination. About another hour down one of the gorges we headed. Again, we disembarked, but this time all the other tourists received a ticket for something. this another thing that's "extra" for us? Well, of course!

We opted not to figure out how much the gatekeepers of the temple wanted to add to our trip and decided to just hang around, take photos of each other and discuss the vendors. Marilyn remarked how this, her 4th trip up the 3 Gorges, was yet again very different than all three previous visits. And she was able to maintain this record throughout the trip. In fact, I would ask her where do you think we'll go, or what time do you think we'll be a certain place...and every time she was able to point out she had been wrong. Another dimension of conversation for us, since we both have a lot in common—lived in Alaska, from Oregon, George Fox University, teaching—and it seemed to grow with each passing hour.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"That costs extra"

Our home for the next two days, the Min Shan, is a four-level Chinese tourist boat that holds about 300 sightseers. It was tied up on the other side of a ship undergoing refurbishment and we walked up a small, wooden slat across the water to gain access to the first boat, walked through that ship and gained entry to ours. Entering the first level of the Min Shan my head had about 2.5" inches to spare from the ceiling. Topping out at 5' 9" I can't imagine what befalls tall Westerners.

Our "first class" accommodations were on the fourth level and we followed Michael as he took to the stairs. Arriving at #405 we entered to a small, yet functional room which featured two small, Chinese beds, a Western toilet/shower area and a large window that ran the entire length of the outer wall. Hum...this seems okay. As we started to settle in, we learned the room's nuances.

It seems both Marilyn and I had been psychic. We both brought different items that apparently aren't included: I brought toilet paper (left over from my African safari) and she brought a hand towel. In examining the shower, we decided to suspend the need of looking for bath towels. And we quickly learned our toilet had a mind of its own. It took hours to complete one flush and on our last 24 hours aboard it decided to take a vacation from its strenuous work.

With our things properly stowed we sat on our beds and talked with Michael about our trip. He drew a small map of our destination and the stops along the way. Nearly an hour had passed before he obtained a key to our room—he handed it to me saying he had put 50 RMB down as a deposit, so don't lose it. We suggested going on the 4th level deck to check out the sights. It's then we learned another item that 'costs extra.'

Access to the first class deck wasn't included. Dumbfounded, Michael told us we were expected to pay 60 RMB each to walk on the deck of our "first class" luxury accommodations. We balked. Thinking we'd discuss over dinner we asked when it was. Hum, oh, that's extra too! After many questions and answers that needed more questions from us to get closer to answers we learned we could order 'a la carte' off of a Chinese menu that Michael read parts of it to us, adding his suggestions. Settling on dinner we learned we would eat at 6:00. Our meal was ready at 7:00 and we walked to the 2nd floor to dine.

Along the way we passed the other accommodations. Each room had three sets of two bunk beds each; the Eastern toilet was down the hall. I gathered as a two-some, we would have shared our experience with other tourists. Not exactly what I would have wanted, so comparatively speaking, we were in "first class." Perspective does wonders.

After our meal of rice, spicy eggplant, tofu/fermented egg and a pork/vegetable dish we decided not having access to the deck wasn't the way to go, so Marilyn decided to negotiate. She got Michael to agree for 100 RMB total we would do this. After enjoying the deck he asked for the money and gave us some sort of hand written receipt. Throughout the trip Marilyn kept saying it just didn't make any sense and surely the other non-Western passengers didn't have that added fee. But, who knows...another item lost in translation.

We retired to our room and prepared for rest. Settled into our beds our boat began its first passage through the single lock just 30 km upriver from Yichang. It was too dark to enjoy the experience so we decided to look at it on our return trip.

Sometime around 2:00 a.m. we awoke to the creaking and grinding of our passage through the five locks at the 3 Gorges Dam. We burrowed into our beds under a single blanket. By now we learned the heater didn't work. Luckily, I had packed my Cocoon sleeping bag insert, so I had a bit more heat retained throughout the night. We awoke to the loud speaker playing Chinese music the next morning, announcing the next step in our adventure.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bus trip to Yichang

On Friday I met Marilyn at the International Education office and a man from the Wuhan travel agency accompanied us to the bus station. As we neared the busy road that cuts through the East and West campus, the man turned to us and asked us if want to take a cab; it will be quicker than a bus, he informed us. Marilyn was suspicious, having lived in China six years. But, we agreed to do this. And, of course, when we arrived at the bus station he told us to pay the cab driver. Hum...this "fully paid trip" had an auspicious start, but it also served as the harbinger of one of our themes on this Three Gorges weekend adventure: "that's extra charge!"

We boarded the nearly full bus and took the last two remaining seats next to each other. I folded into the seat—it seems all busses are built for Asian leg length—and we began our five hour odyssey to Yichang which is the port city and entry to the Three Gorges. On the way out Marilyn pointed to all the places of interest as we went through the other two districts of Wuhan I'd not visited.

As we left the Wuhan city limits the number of blaring car horns went from zero to infinity. I mentioned the increase and Marilyn informed me there's a new law in Wuhan about horn honking. Apparently it's against the law now to do such a thing. So, this heralded our city exit and my introduction to horn etiquette.

On our four lane expressway, two lanes going each way, our bus driver neared a truck in our right lane and started to pass him. The dialog, based upon my translation, began:

Bus: "honk, honk, honk" = "I'm behind you and going to pass"
Truck: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "Okay, I understand"
Bus: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "I'm passing you'
Truck: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "Ah yes, I see you are!"
Bus: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "I just passed you"
Truck: "honk, honk, honk" = "So I see...have a nice day!"

It's a practice repeated for every vehicle passing, give or take a line of dialog. As I adjusted to this noise, the woman who served as the "monitor" for the bus crackled on the very loud, loud speaker. Thank goodness Paul prepared me for this the day before and I wisely packed my earplugs. Poor Marilyn, alas, she did not have noise reduction devices.

We determined the loud speaker woman must have stated our journey and methodology for our travel. Afterwards, she broke into song. Then the microphone started to be passed around. This was above the movie that was blaring on a small TV suspended from the ceiling near the bus driver (my head located it when I boarded). All of a sudden I had flashbacks to a '60's TV show called "Sing Along with Mitch Miller." Oh my goodness, it's going to be a long bus ride.

Happily enjoying the relative peace my earplugs gave, I gazed out the window and watched the passing scenes outside our speeding bus. This was the China I had seen in photos.

Farm after farm passed by; the scene repeated itself an endless number of times. A lone water buffalo slowly pulled a single edged plow with his farmer friend, whose head bore a round, pointed straw hat. Farm upon farm. Row upon row upon row upon row. Twice I saw a baby water buffalo following the farmer who followed the plow who followed the big water buffalo through the plowed fields. Clearly, it's never too early for on the job training of the youngsters.

Two things about these scenes struck me. First, the consistency. The pattern. Rice fields. Lotus fields. Muddy land being worked with farmer and water buffalo. Step back in time and you'd see the same image, it made no difference in century or dynasty. Timeless.

Second, the water buffalo here clearly are polar opposite of their name only cousins out on the African savannah. The Chinese water buffalo seemed tame, almost pet-like. The farmer and water buffalo shared a common bond. Needing no barns, most were un-tethered in the fields if they weren't working. In contrast, African water buffalo are among the most unpredictable and are #2 killers of unsuspecting humans, ranking just after the #1, hippos.

As I thought about these sights we drew near to our destination, Yichang. Almost immediately buildings appeared and with them traffic and street noise began. By Chinese standards Yichang is a small town with 1 million in the city and 4 million in the surrounding area. We sped through a few streets, wound left, right, left, right and found ourselves at the bus stop. A smiling young Chinese man held a sign with both of our names, so I waved through the window. Our guide for the next 2.5 days, Michael helped us with our bags and we followed him about two city blocks to the steps that led us down to the Yangtze River and our next leg of the journey.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Heading up the Yangze River

It's 9:00 a.m. on Friday, March 24. In an hour I will meet Marilyn at the university and we will meet someone who will take us to the bus station and begin our pilgrimage up the Yangze River to the Three Gorges.

I'm told by Paul, a Western teacher here who has made the trip, the bus ride will be 6 hours and we'll drive through rural China. On the trip I should see farmers at work with their trusty water buffalos. Cool. I'll try to secure a photo for you, Skip.

I have the travel contract in hand, but it's written in Chinese. The only thing I recognize is my name and the cost. (680 RMB per person and 300 RMB for an English speaking guide) So, last nite I took the contract with me to dinner with Bob, Lorraine and Joyce, who is another Chinese teacher in their English Department. She translated it for me. It said we would board a big ship (it has 4 levels) that will travel all night and we go up the 5 locks that are built to transport ships past the huge Three Gorges dam. Marilyn has made this trip before and said not to worry about missing the's such a noisy experience we probably won't sleep tonight.

At some point we will board a smaller boat and explore all three of the gorges, making trips along the way to little villages. We will see the biggest dam built during the weekend. I had lunch with Paul Thursday who said the scenery was spectacular. And he thought if more Westerners knew about this, they would all be flocking here to see it.

So, when I return from this trip, I'll make some updates to this blog so those of you reading this blog are interested you can make your travel plans! (Thanks, Peggy, for the Three Gorges will come in handy!)

Until then...think of Marilyn and me as we explore the Three Gorges and the Yangze River. As they say at home, "Film at 11:00!".

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Two 'foodies' find treats

To celebrate Jessie earning an A on her oral English exam on Saturday, I invited her to pick a special place for us to have lunch. She knew exactly where to go! Jessie took me on a big food adventure of street vendors lined up along two small roads in an area that's become known as the place to munch.

On our bus ride to our destination--Bus #804, two stops past Thanksgiving Church--she asked me to tell her about two favorite books I had listed on my blog profile: Through Gates of Splendor and Gift from the Sea. Apparently she had done some Internet research to learn more about me based upon the types of books I had chosen. Talk about a critical thinking example! As part of this research, she found and quoted one of my five most influential quotes, this one by Jim Elliott and taken from Through Gates of Splendor: "He is no fool who is willing to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." I had the opportunity to explain the context of that quote and why it is important to me.

Arriving at the city street we hopped off the bus and walked a few blocks--don't ask me to retrace my steps--and we arrived at an entrance to a specific place at Wuhan. Similar to the entrance to Portland's Chinatown with lions on either side and Chinese characters written on the sign bridging both ends of the street, Jessie told me it said something to the effect that here is where you'll get good food. (I'm butchering the actual verbiage.) And boy did we!

Our first food treat were Chinese donuts. They're about half the thickness of a traditional American doughnut, but like the ones I'm familiar with they are round and golden after being fried in a wok's oil. Made of soy flower with black sesame embedded in them they are removed from the oil and then plunged on a stick. Not very sweet, I didn't really think of them being doughnuts until Jessie advised me differently.

We walked further and Jessie spied a treat she introduced me to and now I'm a real fan: pumpkin cakes. And the owner of this little stand had an interesting collection of lotus root made in various ways. We opted for lotus root rolled into round, grey balls, the size of quarters, and stuck on a foot long wooden stick.

Next, we strolled on and found other types of treats--my memory is failing me suffice to say--we had a lot and then we had our main meal. Jessie selected two types of steamed buns--shrimp/corn and pork/pineapple--right on the street using coal from the vendors who frequent the streets here. We consumed a total of 10 buns inside a little covered area with tables. Remembering how to eat these from Shanghai, I expertly picked them up with my chopsticks, dunked them in the vinegar and thinly sliced ginger in the tiny bowls before us. Then, I bit a small hole on the white, rice dough and sucked the juice out first. Next you bit into them, otherwise you'd have a small mess on yourself.

Then there's doupee. I can't think of anything like it, except maybe a distant cousin of a quiche. Made, like all other foods here, in a hug wok, it's quite amazing to see the cook walk through the process. First, he makes a paper-thin, round egg topping. This is removed from the wok and a 1/4 inch layer of sticky rice is applied and returned to the wok. Than, ingredients like tofu and veggies are added. Cooking on both sides is quite an art. As I chronicled the events of this cooking show, I was quite impressed by what he has to do to turn and then cut this circle of food that breaks down into about 15 two inch squares.

On our way out Jessie pointed to what she called "our apple pie." Intrigued, I stepped closer to find apples cut cross-wise so they are circles, cored, and about l/4 inch in thickness. Rolled in rice material it's then deep fried and chocolate is applied to the finished product.

It's about this time together I told Jess she is a "foodie". This cracked her up. I explained that a good friend of mine, Peggy, and I had been called this by someone. Since then it's been a fun term to refer to when we find new food treats. And like Peggy, Jessie is able to pull out all the different ingredients--this isn't my talent--and assess their flavors and context of the dining experience. (Yes, culinary arts and "foodie" experts translate well cross-culturally!)

Whew! By the time we finished our hour and a half troll of all the food shops I was about to burst. Thank you Jessie! I so much appreciated you introducing me to this wonderful time she shared together so I could learn more about your wonderful congratulations on your A! :)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A walk around the neighborhood

Cathy, an English instructor here, invited me over to her home after church for lunch as a result of her reading my blog about my first invitation last Sunday to a Chinese family's home. THANKS CATHY...for reading and the wonderful invitation for my second visit in a Chinese home! :)

We hopped a bus after services and she introduced me to her neighborhood, shuguohu zhangjiawan xiaogu, which is much different area of Wuhan that's known as the governmental section. It's a nicer area than where I live—Lou shi Lu Wuhan Ligongdaxue—and much more kept up than the area where the Thanksgiving Church is located, yanzi lu jiaotang, which is over 1,000 years old. (If you couldn't tell Cathy spelled each of these areas out for me!)

She has a truly multi-generational household of three: her 70-ish year old mother, her teenage daughter and herself. Her mother was off to visit a sister that day, so Cathy, her daughter and I spent a quiet time eating what she prepared for us: boiled Wuhan fish, a seaweed and meat soup her mother had prepared, Chinese lettuce (nothing at all like lettuce in America) that is boiled and she mixed peanut butter in it (her own concoction she claims), and of course, rice.

After lunch Cathy took me on a sightseeing tour of her neighborhood. It's really different than where I currently call home. For starters, was the fact that throughout our entire walk the sidewalks were flat and well swept. None of her neighborhood sidewalks are like mine: broken, littered with various debris, mammoth muddy holes, and other types of walking hazards to dodge.

The foot traffic was also different. I never saw coal merchants with their bicycles hauling impossible loads, since most buildings had electricity-based heat. And all of the traffic on the sidewalks was just pedestrian! It's quite normal for me to dodge cars, motorcycles, bikes, and other wheeled contraptions as a normal course of pedestrian activity. So the big difference for me was I could really look at her neighborhood and not have to focus on protecting life and limb.

About a block from her house was an open walkway area where there were no cars, but open storefronts on either side, so it made it easy to walk and leisurely shop. She pointed out her local KFC and Mc Donald's and we walked into several, large grocery markets as Cathy tried to help me find some of the wonderful flower tea I had discovered in Shanghai. We also inspected about five tea shops during our trip, but no luck so far.

Moving out of the neighborhood shopping area Cathy pointed us in the direction of East Lake which is about a half mile from her house. She lives on the opposite end of this huge lake from the Plumb Tree Park I had visited on my first Sunday here. On our way to see the lake we passed some noteworthy buildings.

Cathy pointed to a huge building and said it had been a flat piece of property with mud holes when she moved here seven years ago. But, after Hong Kong rejoined China this area was transformed into provincial government buildings. She pointed out the Hubei provincial government building and also "the party's" building. This building's grounds really stood out. We could see through the walled gates a totally green carpet—you don't see green here currently—with neatly manicured trees and gardens. Outside this pastoral setting surrounding 'the party' building were smartly uniformed military officers who stood at rapt attention. And they were armed, the first time I'm seen a gun while I've been in China.

As we reached the corner of the street across from the walkway that fronted East Lake we paused at a large fortress-like building. Cathy shuddered as she told me the history about the plot of land beneath this monument.

During World War II over 10,000 Chinese citizens had been killed or buried alive here by Japanese invaders. Mention of this incident brought our conversation to one that my students have initiated during both of my trips here: Chinese and Japanese relations. As a guest of China I've watched a local English station, CCTV9, and viewed documentaries which tell the brutality inflicted by the Japanese many times over the course of Chinese history. This fact is ever present and not far from the memories of nearly every Chinese citizen I have spoken with.

I mentioned to Cathy during our conversation that my students are vehement in their self-initiated discussions and statements surrounding this topic. Clearly, the memories of their parents and grandparents are carried forward from generation to generation to generation. We discussed this topic and others on our return walk back to her apartment.

Since Cathy and I are in the same age group--the 40-something set--she has some amazing stories and experiences because she has seen the evolution of so many different Chinas during her lifetime. I am privileged to have spent this afternoon getting to know her better and hearing these insights first-hand.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rose petal soup

March 8 was Women's Day here in China. It's the day set aside to honor women and it's also the date that many stores offer, as any developing market-based economy would do, a SALE! Apparently, stores give small to big discounts to women who shop that day. At the university here, the group of women at the International Education office received the afternoon off in deference to the day and the sales!

Later that nite I joined Bob, Lorraine, Shaw, and Jane for dinner at a near-by restaurant everyone seems to frequent: the Drunken Moon. After being seated in our own little room Shaw explained his conversation with the waitress: since it was Women's Day, and there were three women in the party, we would receive special soup "on the house" to honor us.

I thought, well, that's nice. But, the soup wasn’t ordinary was rose petal soup!

Talk about AWESOME!! It’s a lukewarm soup with a sweet rice base so it is opaque and has TONS of rose petals in it. It’s equally aromatic as it is tasty. I for one wouldn't have thought of turning rose petals into soup—perhaps the Rose City needs to look into this and adopt it as its official soup. It's totally incredible.

I’m not one to just sit and fully appreciate a taste, but I did this time. Taste. Smell. It was olfactory and tastebud overload. Both Lorraine and I put our spoons down and just enjoyed the wonderful, sweet, aromatic taste of roses in bloom exploding in our mouths.

And, according to Shaw who knows Chinese cultural data points, rose petal soup is supposed to make you more beautiful. So clearly it’s a winner on many levels! Although, I got up the next morning, looked in the mirror and didn't see any change.

Friday, March 17, 2006

"And a river runs thru it"

Like my home town of Portland, Oregon, Wuhan is a city divided by a river. In Portland it's the Willamette. Here in Wuhan it's the Chang Jiang, better known as the Yangzi River, which is the world's third longest river. Wuhan has many distinctions including the fact that it's the only Chinese city that actually straddles both sides of a major water artery.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province and has a population of 8 million. An interesting comment in the Lonely Planet guide book is "Not many people go out of their way to go to Wuhan, but a lot of people pass through the place since it's the terminus of the Yangzi River ferries from Chongquing."

Having visited Shanghai, I'd say Wuhan lacks much of the western influence you'll find in Shanghai. One dimension of that statement means that as a Westerner you're still an oddity and a major curiosity. For example, this week Lorraine told me of an incident where a man riding a bike was so intent on staring at her and her husband, Bob, that the man ploughed into a woman pedestrian.

However, it's not to say you won't find America, and other Western nations', influence here since I'm within walking distance of KFC, Pizza Hut and McDonalds (I never eat at them at home and am proud to say I've not changed any habits!) And, I previously posted my experiences of visiting large shopping complexes which feature all familiar American and European brands. All building signs are in Chinese here, while in Shanghai you'll see some in English.

Located in what's regarded as central China, Wuhan is really three former, independent cities that were joined together to create one. Addresses still bear this legacy since where I am, Wuhan University of Technology, is in Wuchang, Wuhan, Hubei Province. Originally founded during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) as a walled city, Wuchang is now a district of Wuhan. On my December trip here I joined Bob, Lorraine and Shaw for a walk in the inner portion of our district and Shaw remarked that the streets we walked through dated back over 1,000 years. It's here in Wuchang across the Yangzi River from the other two districts—Hankou and Hanyang—where you'll find most of the city's some 40 universities and colleges.

My experience here in Wuhan has been limited to Wuchang. However, flying into Wuhan you must drive through parts of the other two districts to reach and cross the Yangzi River into the Wuchang district.

Hankou, according to the same guide book, features a number of European style buildings which are a reflection of its transformation from the early 1900's into one of China's four major commercial cities today. Hanyang dates to 600 AD and is where heavy industry is located. It's the major contributor to the fact that you see the air you breathe here.

So, depending upon the nature of your business—since it's definitely not a tourist destination—really determines which of the three portions of Wuhan you will find yourself exploring.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Tailor Shop - revisited

Last December I accompanied Lorraine, Bob and Shaw to the tailor shop they had chosen out of literally dozens that line this one street in old Wuhan. It's about a 20 minute bus ride from the university and very close to both the Thanksgiving Church and the Catholic church I have attended. When I was there the first time in December I decided the ultimate "souvenir" would be to have a vest made so I could wear it when teaching in America. So, when I returned to China I hauled two living patterns: one vest and one blazer.

We returned with this mission in mind on my first Tuesday here in Wuhan. The two women who work with customers remembered me! (They remembered I had purchased material for my mother to make pillows!)

After some tea, and Shaw chatting in Chinese with them, we got down to business. I brought out my first item: a blazer. My well worn and loved Nordstrom blue blazer had died last year, so I removed the gold buttons and brought them to recycle here. After selecting the wool and silk lining, Shaw, the tough negotiator who never leaves any money on the table, went to work. Apparently the two women were very tough on him. (As a female, I must confess I was proud of them since they were tough.) He told Bob and me, let's wait till the man returns to the shop, he's easier! Well, we did and he did get the price down a bit.

Next, I pulled out of my backpack the vest I brought. I found the green fabric I loved so much in December and pulled it out. Then, I looked to find a silk pattern that matched what a friend of mine had described. Eureka! But then, I thought. Hum...why not get another one done and make it three so I grabbed a blue pattern I liked as well. Shaw began his negotiations on the second round.

After agreeing on the price, writing all the details down, taking snips of the cloth and attaching them to the bill of sale, we also agreed on the delivery date.

This Monday we returned to retrieve the goods.

All I can say is...AMAZING workmanship! As I tried on my new Nordstrom replacement jacket I couldn't help but think how it was even better than the original. Out of the corner of my eye I saw them watching me examine it in the mirror, so I gave a little dance and the two ladies broke into gales of laughter.

Next, the vests made their appearance and as I tried each one on—black/red, green and blue—I motioned for the two women to pose with me and Shaw captured the moment on my digital camera. They were very excited!!! Now, I have three silk vests (Kate: yours has a black background with red and gold Chinese writing that, according to Shaw the Chinese historian, is what's written on the inside of the Xian tombs) Each one has three traditionally crafted fasteners that are called Pan Co (Round bottom, according to Jessie my TA who examined them today) which are constructed with one piece of fabric. It takes about an hour to create three of these fasteners per vest.

As I tried each one on, I thought...hum, I like Kate's vest, too. So at the conclusion of our business I asked for a second black/red one. (Kate, hope you don't care we'll look like twins!) They were happy to comply for the same price.

For those who are wondering the cost for these items, I'll share.

Bear in mind I had Shaw, the master of negotiation, arrive at the price. So, I am completely certain there's no way I could have arrived at this price myself. The total for one wool blazer with silk lining and four inside zippered pockets and two inset exterior pockets; three silk vests with two inset pockets on the outside and one inset pocket in the silk lining on the inside: 640 RMB ($80). Not bad for a wonderful, practical souvenir of my two months living here in China!

Monday, March 13, 2006

"Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy"

At church last week I met a delightful Chinese woman, Min, who invited me over to their apartment for lunch this Sunday. I immediately accepted the offer since I know it's very rare for a Westerner to be invited into a Chinese home.

Min is an instructor of English at Wuhan University and has taught there for a total of 10 years. Her husband, Lin, is a professor of Chemistry, but he also does a lot of research on how drugs can be improved. They have a delightful little girl, Mary Ann, who Min jokes is a "Texan" since she was born nearly four years ago when she and her husband lived in Austin when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Texas. Like her parents, she's bi-lingual. (And actually talked a lot of English with me.)

We jumped into their car after church with Lin driving; Min and I took to the back with Mary Ann between us. Within three minutes Mary Ann made it clear I had a job to do during our drive. I yielded and read three Telitubies stories to her, complete with sound effects. Apparently she is fully in love with all the characters—whose names now escape me. Min said it was nice she didn't have to read this time and she enjoyed listening to me enunciate the English text (since clearly I couldn't read the Chinese).

While this two-level entertainment theatre took place in the back seat, Lin drove us to Wuhan University. A very nice looking campus, they gave me an insightful tour of central China's oldest (over 100 years) and most prestigious university. What this means is the students they teach scored higher on the national college entrance exams than the ones I teach and, therefore, had the opportunity to attend Wuhan University.

Because the weather took a major reversal—it was in the mid-70s and I was sweating like a pig last Sunday—we were all bundled up to the eyeballs against the cold and bitter winds. We did most of our sightseeing from the comfort of their warm car. Afterwards we arrived at their faculty housing and climbed the stairs to their sixth floor apartment.

Min chopped all the ingredients for our meal; Lin assumed chef and master of the wok responsibilities. I served as the entertainment center for Mary Ann. After coloring, putting her three Telitubbies to bed in my lap, along with her bear nestled in my right arm, and discovering the wonders of tossing balls, lunch was served.

As we finished dining, Min shared a Chinese idiom that I found fascinating. "Sour, Sweet, Bitter and Spicy...and for teachers this is especially true." I asked her to explain this. Min said this phrase is applied in China to mean this is how life have these types of moments....and from her perspective, teachers have them more than others. For the next hour we discussed, given a teacher's perspective, what would constitute each of these stages for us.

We quickly agreed that "sweet" was when a student learned in our classes and that they told you this so you could share in knowing what you did made a difference. This is why we enjoy teaching, for these "sweet" moments.

"Sour" is when you have a good student, but there are aspects of his/her attitude or behavior that makes the experience more difficult. (We shared current examples!) But that you could see progress. And in the end, the student would be successful, but perhaps not with you.

After much discussion and sharing of current, specific experiences we decided that "bitter" was those times where you'd just rather not have, either in a classroom or with a specific student. These were the moments when you thought, "Why am I doing this?"

Then our definition moved to "spicy". After considering this thoughtfully we concluded this is when a student is very demanding, sometimes challenging with negative overtones, (like one student I currently have who feels it's his job to tell me how to teach). But in the end the dialog you develop through these "spicy" times becomes an experience where both student and teacher can learn.

Sharing cultural idioms—Chinese with Americans and Americans with Chinese—is one of the many facets of living here I really enjoy. It shows how much commonality we truly share, despite cultures, and gives wonderful cultural insights. I had a delightful day with Min, Lin, and Mary Ann. Thank you, my new friends, for inviting me to visit and share wonderful food and fellowship with your family.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Adventures in grocery shopping

My first trip to Wuhan in December I taught International Marketing. So for me, walking the half mile to the Zhong IGA store—it's like a Fred Meyer in Chinese—was an extension of school. A two story building with household goods on the second floor and groceries on the first, it was my 'field work' reconnaissance. I went to shop, but mostly to learn by examination how Western companies had applied the principles I taught about adjusting your product to a foreign market. It's fascinating. In fact, I will confess to walking down there to just to spend several hours to fondle and gawk at products.

As you prowl the aisles—set up much like a Costco—you quickly learn you're not alone. At a minimum there are three friendly female workers whose job is to stand in each aisle and help you buy products. Proactive sales associates do take some getting used to. Plus, it's always interesting to see them size you up as you enter their aisle. They decide in a split second if they should bother with you, a Westerner, since clearly you don't know Chinese and they don't know English.

Beyond the language issue, international marketing principles application analysis, investigation of mysterious foods, discovering your TOTAL reliance on packaging with photos for clues to contents, you must also adjust to a more important food fact: the convergence of grocery story and, from a Westerner's perspective, pet store.

I had been so mesmerized by the packaged food products last time that I had totally ignored the meat and seafood department. This was my sad discovery this week when I returned to forage for food.

Near the dairy section—I bought some kiwi yogurt—I spied clear tanks with moving objects. Curious, I ventured closer. Oh my. Turtles. About 20 in total with two varieties of about a foot in length reacted to their grocery store captivity in different ways. One variety clearly had written off its existence since they just sat there awaiting their fate. Another variety had a will to live and violently tried to escape atop the quitters' backs. Alas, the plastic jail kept them housed very well. But, you could tell in their eyes they knew...this was a terminal situation.

Their next door neighbors, the frogs, sat in quiet stupor. Nearly as large as the turtles, the frogs seemed resolved as well. They just sat. Staring. No blinking. Not seeing anything. Never uttering a croak. Clearly, they had powerful legs, but either they had lost the use of them or they too had been overcome by depression and gave up like some of their neighbors.

Next door to them a large school of fish—one to two feet in length—occupied a rather small area. A young man seemed to want one for dinner. I learned how grocery 'fishing' is done. You just grab a net and scoop out a fish and plop it in a bag and take it to be weighed. Quick. Simple. I didn't want to think about the turtles or frogs...

Clearly, my mind had been elsewhere during my December grocery trips. I'd remembered the grocery store with fond memories. The next time I return to stock up on essentials, I will not venture near the meat department. It reminds me too much of PetCo.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Reflection - the three "H"s

Sitting in Bob and Lorraine's 2nd floor appt waiting to go to lunch, Lorriane and I chatted about our day's events. During the course of our conversation she mentioned "the three Hs". Not knowing her reference, I asked for explaination.

The three Hs refer to an article she read about the stages of adjustment when you live in a totally different culture. First, there's the Honeymoon period where everything is new and exciting and wonderful. Then, there's the Hostility period, where the realities of life set in and the differences are so difficult to deal with. Last, there's the time when the culture starts to feel like Home.

We can both relate to the stages only too well, and although they have been and will be here longer than I will, I couldn't help but think there have been moments where I experienced the last step in my first trip during December. I can certainly relate to the first and second step in both trips...some days more than others on the 2nd step!

It's such a comfort having other Western teachers here in the apartment building to share the victories and the defeats of living here in Wuhan, China. Also, knowing that the team at the International Educational Department is only a short walk away from my apartment is very, very comforting. They have jumped in and solved problems that I never could have on my own, not knowing how processes run or speaking Chinese. I can't imagine how terrible, isolated and unequipped to face each day I would be without them.

Knowing I'd had a lot of the 2nd step in my day, later that same day Lorraine came up to my apartment with hot coco and two Chinese about comforting! Thank you, Lorraine, for your friendship...and introducing me to those wonderful cookies!! :)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Traditional Chinese tea ceremony

We concluded our Sunday afternoon visit to the Plum Tree Park by enjoying a traditional Chinese tea ceremony...thanks to Bob yielding to an excellent saleswoman!

Walking into the building, the four of us lined up behind a small group of people watching a family of five sitting on short stools around a wooden table engaged in what appeared to be a tea ceremony. Intrigued we stood for about 20 minutes and then started to leave. Just as we stepped to the door, a woman who had watched us asked Bob if he would bring his group back to have a Chinese tea ceremony when this one was over. Looking at the rest of us, our faces said yes, so he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Sure!"

In about 20 minutes we were ushered to the other tea table and the same young woman, dressed in a yellow, traditional Chinese top, walked behind the wooden table and proceeded to begin the tea ceremony. The color yellow, I remember Shaw explaining to me on my first trip to China, was a royal color and at one time it could only be worn by the Emperor. All through this tea ceremony she spoke the history of the ceremony in Chinese and Shaw translated. He also explained it takes two years of training and special licensing to become certified to perform a tea ceremony like this one.

Sitting on the short stools around the front of the table, we learned we were going to have Black Dragon tea, so it would be a black tea vs. green tea ceremony. They are different we learned. We watched the young woman's incredibly delicate, almost porcelain-like, hands expertly move through very defined movements with the small, clay tea pot. The pot we learned was four years old. This is very important since you use only one variety of tea in a pot and the longer you use it, the more aromatic it becomes and thus more wonderful the tea smells when you serve it.

She began the process we had seen earlier of lining two sets of cups—one cup narrower and taller than the other—for each person. With the tea in the tea pot, she poured hot tea twice—you can use the tea 9 times—over the both sets of traditional tea cups. Each cup holds about the size of one big American swallow.

As she completed the second round of pouring tea into and then out of the cups, she poured tea a third time into both sets of small tea cups. For each person she placed the wider tea cup up with tea in it and the longer tea cup empty and inverted on a wooden holder and handed this to us using both hands. We received it the same way.

First, we held the longer, inverted tea cups between our hands and smelled the tea. Our tea server explained in Chinese to Shaw who translated our next instructions. Hold the small cup filled with tea using the middle finger below the cup and the thumb and index finger around the top. It's not too hard to do, but like chopsticks, takes a bit of learned dexterity to the neophyte.

The first time you drink this tea you must sip it three times. The first sip is for your teeth, the second is for your tongue and the third is for your thirst. After that you can sip it however you like. We continued sipping tea and eating four types of seeds until we had exhausted our 9th pouring of tea from the tea pot.

We left feeling very relaxed. This was due not only from the process, time spent and new insights we gained into this very important facet of Chinese culture, but also from listening to the soothing, rhythmic rounds of traditional Chinese music that played in the background throughout our wonderful interlude at a traditional Chinese tea ceremony.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The food court

Just around the large electronics store, where Jessie helped me buy a Toshiba memory stick, there's a big shopping center, Chicony, with many floors. I told Jessie I was treating her to lunch and she must pick where we would go. She decided we should see what we want to eat before we eat it, thus our destination.

Entering the mall we walked through major clothing brands that made me feel like I had stepped into a time warp and was back home, except, of course for the Chinese signs. Once in the door, Jessie headed like a shot towards the elevator. I followed. We stepped into the elevator and the smartly uniformed elevator operator punched floor 7 for us. As the elevator began to rise I watched the floor lights glow as we passed each one. Oddly enough, I could actually read what was on each floor, since they were in both Chinese and English, so I knew what floor 7 is called: Food Court.

Thinking what Food Court means at home, I figured I knew what to expect: different fast food vendors lined up and we would pick what we wanted for lunch. One thing I sometimes forget (not often) is never think you know or understand anything. I relearned this lesson. (I think I got a little heady since I could read the elevator sign.)

The elevator doors opened and we walked into a cavernous floor that I think stretched the entire building. Tables were scattered all over and as we walked through the endless numbers of diners, we found the heart of the food court.

Jessie knew the protocol. Selecting a prime table, she called a waiter over to give her a sheet of paper with, of course, Chinese writing on it. Simultaneously a woman appeared and put two dishes, two bowls and two sets of chopsticks on the table. Jessie then pulled a textbook from her backpack (Kotler's Introduction to Marketing!) on the table and told me, "Let's see what food we like!" Thinking about what just happened as we picked up round trays I reflected on how I would have made a mistake; I would have sat down at a table that was set up with dishes (indicated occupied), not one that didn't have any on it.

To call this a big Chinese version of a cafeteria—that's the closest I can come—really does a disservice. Walking up and down the lines of food, Jessie explained if I wanted something point at it and the server behind the table will pick it up and put it on your tray and will take the paper and make a note on it. Sounded simple. What's difficult is making food selection decisions. With literally hundreds of different dishes to choose from, it's like being a kid in a candy store, so much to see and ask. I asked Jessie if she had eaten all possible varieties of Chinese food, the answer was no.

I recognized a number of food items: lotus soup, marinated lotus, the hot vegetable dish I'd had Sunday, sweet and sour pork, a vegetable I'm fond of and never can say its name, and others. Jessie and I agreed to pick items to share, so we both had to agree on what we put on our plates. A few items I never considered (and neither did she!) included: thinly sliced pig ear, dog tongue, pickled chicken feet. I'm sure there were others, these were just the ones I inquired of Jessie, "What's that?"

We completed our food quest and returned with the following: two different green leafy vegetables they cooked and delivered to our table, a bowl of spicy shrimp, a skewer of cooked squid, a bowl of tasty pumpkin, fried rice, spicy bamboo shoots, cooked mushrooms, a bun with sesame seeds on it with sticky rice inside, a fish dish, some sort of sticky rice dessert and two bottles of water. The bill: 52 RMB ($6.50)

On our way out of the shopping area Jessie spied a man behind a counter at another store. He had what can best be described as foot long delicately crafted figures made from some sort of sugar mixture. Jessie was excited to see this since it reminded her of her childhood and her parents buying one for her. So, naturally I bought one after we made careful selection: a deer. Cost: 2 RMB. Literally pennies bought a wonderful memory to the surface and I had a chance to share in it. What fun!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Flowering plum blossoms

On Sunday I returned from church to find an invitation on my apartment door to join Lorraine, Bob and Shaw at 3:00 for a visit to Plum Tree Park out on East Lake here in Wuhan. Of course! I met my friends at the West Gate of campus and we hopped a taxi to our destination.

As we neared the park the traffic—car and foot—intensified and came to a stand still. Clearly, all Wuhan families had decided this was a great day to see the beauty of the blossoms in full bloom. It lasts about four weekends and this was supposed to be the best weekend. Judging from the traffic, I figured everyone must be right!

As we sat in traffic Shaw explained there are three plum tree parks in China. Wuhan is the largest with 10,000 plumb trees of 262 different varieties on 57 hectares (I have no idea how that translates to acres). Despite the fact that it had snowed on Monday, Sunday the sun was out in full and we had stripped off our long underwear and outer coats. I even got a red nose.

Bob and Shaw haggled over who would pay the 20 RMB entrance fee (8 RMB = $1 US) per person and we began our walk. Not far into the park we met several of Bob's graduate students who were also there enjoying the day. For a town of 8 million, sometimes Wuhan seems like a small place since Shaw saw a friend there as well.

We walked through the budding and flowering plum trees and paused to breathe in their intoxicating aroma. Yellow. Red. Pink. Light lavender. All the blossoms smelled different. Lorraine and I remarked, we can now better understand why Chinese art reflects so much these...they are so incredibly lovely.

Since the plum blossoms are so much a part of Chinese culture, it was very understandable why so many visitors posed within the branches. Lorraine remarked how it seemed like everyone knew how to artfully become a part of the trees' branches to compose a photo that would be a work of art, rather than an American pose of in front of a tree. Perhaps a collectivist vs. individualistic culture difference reaches even to how one poses for a photo?

As we walked deeper into the park we reached an area where the blossoms were totally out on a number a trees. On their limbs we saw hundreds of what looked like small note cards with writing on the back. Shaw explained it was a Chinese tradition for lovers to leave notes for each other as part of the plum blossom festival. Lorraine suggested Shaw buy one of the notes and leave one for Jane (us women must stick together!) and he quickly obliged. Lorraine captured it on film

As we wound through more of the park—we only saw about one-third of it—we arrived at one building where you could purchase and enjoy an official Chinese tea ceremony. Bob did and that's a whole post unto itself...stay tuned!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The traffic accident

It's amazing more accidents don't occur with the traffic and ever changing obstacles that cross the streets here. You've got cars, taxis, busses, bicycles with just passengers and bicycles blancing amazing amounts of goods, push carts with all sorts of items, people of all ages, and adventurous dogs. Luoshi Road, a major thoroughfare in Wuchang (one of three towns that were joined together to create Wuhan) is a four lane road which cuts through the West and East campuses of Wuhan University of Technology.

On Sunday morning I arrived at my appointed location to meet Marilyn so I could join her at church. And, as I waited I watched the hustle and bustle of the morning traffic. A man hauled a big pile of charcoal briquettes used for heating and cooking. Several men walked with their loads in woven baskets connected to a long bamboo pole which balanced on their backs. All sorts of interesting foot traffic (of course, I was fascinating for pedestrians to look at being the only Westernern around). When I wasn't looking, a taxi ran into a motorcyclist on the opposite of the road from where I stood.

I hadn't really noticed it until I heard the yelling. And then I saw one older man and a younger man pushing and shoving each other near the back of a stopped taxi. They screamed at each other at the top of their lungs. It's then I saw a motorcycle decorating the front end of the taxi. Everyone stopped to watch.

They grabbing each others' hands and pushed. Yelling continued. They grabbed at each others' coats and shoved and pushed. About 30 people circled the two men, one woman—she obviously knew one of them—tried to intervene. I started to wonder when a fist fight would start. It never did. Later I learned that doesn't happen here, it's just the yelling and pushing, never fists.

This continued for about 20 minutes until two policeman drove up on motorcycles. Several of the young men from the university who were also meeting Marilyn arrived and explained it was now up to the policeman to decide what to do. One policeman took out a camera and began documenting the scene. It's then I noticed something interesting.

I inquired of the students, "They're police?" Yes, was the reply. "I don't see any of them with handguns on their belts," I responded. They explained guns are against the law for citizens to own, so no one owns one here and the police don't carry guns. Two new insights into Chinese culture I learned by just standing on a street corner.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Squeaky wheels get oiled

One of the many fun cultural exchanges is trading phrases or idioms and trying to explain them in context. Such was one entertaining event during Friday night's dinner, my 'welcome back to Wuhan' meal.

Bob and Lorraine called Shaw and Jane (Shaw is Bob's TA and Jane and Shaw were married in January) and we all went out to dinner at the same restaurant where I had lunch. I've been there about 6 times thus far and I very seldom see the same items appear—unless I request—set before me. That's one of the many wonders of REAL Chinese food, i.e. food made and consumed in China!

Shaw and Jane both teach English at Wuhan University and Shaw is studying to pass an entrance exam to start a doctorate program on Chinese history. (He has incredible insights and knowledge when we discuss anything Chinese). They are a delightful young couple. Perhaps I should add one more insight: they are hysterical together!! It's never a dull moment!

One reason for all the entertainment is that Shaw is masterful in getting what he wants and never lets anything stop him. Like a crowded restaurant at 7:00 on a Friday nite where it was difficult to even find a place to stand and wait.

On his cell phone he called the restaurant manager...she was a Wuhan University graduate. She needed to get us a private room for dinner. (Large Chinese restaurants have multiple levels with private rooms where you can dine in peace and quiet). The young woman appeared. Much activity. About 10 minutes elapsed, Shaw initiated conversation again. Within about 15 minutes of entering they began to usher us to a room. But wait! It had two tables and the other table had noisy people at it. No good!

They ushered us to a private waiting area and poured us tea. A room by ourselves is a must, Shaw insisted. As the minutes ticked by Shaw told one of the workers that as the time elapsed the amount of money he planned on spending at the restaurant was decreasing. About 10 minutes elapsed and then we were ushered into our own room. Happily ensconced in our private room we started talking. Lorraine asked me about my TA and I told her I had learned on the walk back from lunch that I am the only foreign teacher to have a TA ever. I thought that Josephine's request and Zhang Ping's agreement was customary, apparently not. Lorraine's comment to that was, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil!"

Jane's ears perked up. A new phrase! Explain this! Lorraine pointed at Shaw, "He's the squeaky wheel here at the restaurant and getting us this table is the oil!" We all laughed. That's a perfect descriptor of Shaw's driving tenacity to get what he believes is the right thing done for his guests. I have no question that Shaw will pass his doctorate entrance exam and complete his doctorate in Chinese history. If Shaw's and Jane's child has half of Shaw's drive and half of Jane's humor he or she will truly be a delightful person.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Seems like 'old home' week

It's amazing to think I was only here for three weeks in December; based upon the rekindling of friendships and joy I experienced at seeing my Chinese and Western friends here, you'd think I had lived here much longer.

At 9:30 I appeared in the doorway of the International Education office and everyone stopped what they were doing to welcome me. Smiles. Smiles. Smiles. I also met my TA, Jessie! (More about her later!)

Invited to rejoin the group for lunch at noon, I quickly made a trip to the local grocery store to stock up on a few items. Walking the familiar path home and up the stairs I found a note from Lorraine along with the two sacks of items they had stored for me at my front door, plus a few welcome back food gifts! It was quite delightful!

Returning to school at noon we—five folks who work in the American section of the International Education school and two Western teachers, Paul the Canadian and 'boy' Tyler (yes, two Tylers teach in Wuhan)—all walked to lunch at the same place where I had been taken my first day in Wuhan back in December. Familiar and new foods appeared on the first view of a chicken feet dish. Decided to pass this time, but several of my favorites I eagerly consumed including taro rolls and an amazing fish's a work of art!

By mid-afternoon I returned to the foreign faculty apartment building and as I started to climb the stairs to #402 I heard movement in Bob and Lorraine's apartment. I banged on the door and a grinning from ear to ear Lorraine welcomed me in. We sat on short, plastic stools as she emptied her grocery shopping treasures into the kitchen cabinets and we caught up with many details our emails couldn't cover since we saw each other.

At 6:45 I returned to Bob and Lorraine's and we rendezvoused for dinner with the new couple: Shaw and Jane. It really seemed like 'old home' week my first full day in Wuhan! And, I forgot to note, I had a chance to say "Nee How" to 'the lady with the key!"

Flying West to go East

Nee how from Wuhan, China!

It's 12:30 a.m. Friday morning and my computer says it's 8:27 a.m. Thursday morning in Portland. Just unpacked and I'm pleased to report all the presents I brought for my new friends made it through unbroken. Bless those baggage handlers' hearts!

The trip over here was uneventful, no issues with connections or finding my way. I was reasonably pleased with myself that I recalled the nuances of getting through Beijijng airport. Since the sun was just 20 minutes away from disappearing, I did get a parting glimpse of the Great Wall as we made our approach into Peking Airport.

As I did last time, I had involuntary naps on the plane from Beijing to Wuhan which is about a 1 hour 40 minute flight. I had quite a greeting committee! Britannia (for those of you who didn't follow my first adventure, she is the young woman who is the liaison betwen the foreign faculty and the school). She brought her boyfriend and one young man who will be in my class!

Since she lives over an hour out of town by bus, the two of them came into Wuhan and hopped a cab and my new student and our driver brought us to West Campus foreign faculty housing. And, yes, I'm back in my old apartment, #402! Seemed like home and I could tell no one else has inhabited it since my departure in Dec.

It seemed so normal...the power was off, the water was off, no heat and no water bottle in the machine. But, my new student made major points with me by waking up the manager and getting him up here to remedy all the above situations. I'm just glad right now that I brought the Cocoon sleeping bag liner I had on my camping safari in Africa with me will be quite a while before the little heater in my bedroom brings the air up to a warm level, since all the windows had also been left wide open.

I meet with a few students tomorrow to discuss how we will change the time on our Saturday class to accommodate their TEUFL study (preparing for an English language exam).

Well, more later on this the 2nd round of my China 'most excellent' adventure!