Ellen's China Diary Part One: First Trip, February -March, 2006, Beijing
Prologue: First Flight to and Arrival in China
What can I say about the flight from San Francisco to China except that it was very loooooonnnnnngggggg. We saw five movies, only three of which I actually watched— “Something about Heaven” (can't remember the actual title; a near-fetched romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon); another movie I can't remember (must have been great, eh?); and “The Emperor's Club” with a stuffy avuncular Kevin Kline. In between I dozed off and on and chatted with my seatmates, a couple from San Luis Obispo who were going to Beijing to meet up with a tour group.
We landed in Beijing about 6PM (Tuesday). Beautiful new airport, very modern, lots of chrome and bright colors. After an interminable wait at baggage claim as five or six official-looking guys kept climbing down into the chute to free jammed suitcases (not a good portent for the Olympic visitors in 2008!), my two finally appeared (praise be) and I trotted out into the main lobby to find this very cute little guy, looking about 15 years old, and holding up a sign saying “Dr. Ellen Dowling.” I followed him out to the parking garage and we loaded my suitcases into a car driven by a woman (never did get either her name or the guy's) and off we went into the Beijing night. The ride through the city (the University is about 45 minutes from the airport) revealed wide highways (just like in the US) and lots and lots of hazy smog (just like in LA?). Lots of traffic, too; we almost stopped completely a couple of times. (I kept dosing off, as by this time I had been awake for over 24 hours.) I tried talking to my chauffeurs, but she didn't speak any English and the young guy's ability was very limited. They drove me into the campus (which has military-looking guards at each “gate”—including the walk-in gates, as I found out later.)
The Shaoyuan Hotel, which is where I'm staying, is very nice and actually on the campus itself. The phone number here, in case anyone needs to use it, is 62752218 62752200. (That's what it says on the card that came in my “welcome” packet, along with 8,300 worth of yuan in 100 yuan bills.) Looks like that might be two different numbers, but I can't say for sure. The card also says, “Please drive me to:” and the hotel info, in Chinese, so I can just hand this to anyone who might be able to help me if I get lost. I have two single beds, one for just my suitcases! LOL! The bed I slept in is much harder than I think we have in the States, but when I finally got to sleep, after a little unpacking, I was so tired I could have slept on the floor! I went to sleep around 9:30 PM and woke up at 7 AM, so I feel like a human again today.
Day One: In which Ellen overcomes the shower problem, searches for coffee, and gets a tour of the campus, replete with dumplings!
Adventures in Plumbing:
The first problem I encountered this morning was with the shower—I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to get the bloody thing to work! So I had to take a bath and wash my hair under the tap. (I know, I know, poor pitiful me.) But my hairdryer worked fine (with the adaptor), so that was good. After I got dressed and all, I went out in search of breakfast—specifically coffee. (There is an electric teapot and tea bags in my room, which is nice, but I was really craving coffee.) So I found this store around the corner with a sign that said “Mini Mart.” There's nothing “mini” about this mart at all—it's huge! And sells everything from shoes to Beijing U. t-shirts, to eyeglasses, to doo-dads, to alcohol, to snack things. So there I found orange juice and some “pastries,” both of which I bought by using sign language. (Did you know that EVERY yuan bill, from the 1 to the 10 to the 20 to the 50 to the 100, has a picture of Mao on it?) No coffee, of course. (The only thing I could find was “Nescafe”—ick.) I brought my “breakfast” back to the hotel only to find that the cleaning lady was in my room (this is at 8:30 in the morning), so I went outside and ate in front of the hotel as I watched people go by. (I'll send pictures I took soon.) I then had a brilliant idea and went back into the hotel and, by dint of more sign language, got the cleaning lady to show me how to turn on the shower. (Of course it was very easy once I saw how it worked.)
I then took off and walked for about an hour, wandering around and taking various pictures. My overall impression of the campus: very ugly and dreary. Reminds me a lot of what East Berlin looked like when my brother and I drove through it some years ago. Big, ugly, boring buildings. Not all of them are this bad, and I took pictures later of the cool buildings on campus, but most of them are very drab. I also walked outside the campus (past the grim-looking 12-year-old guard—so he appeared—at the gate), and spotted a KFC. Maybe they'll have coffee, I thought. No such luck. Back to the hotel I went (very chilled; it must be only about 45 outside) and lo and behold I found a little “Café” in the hotel itself, went in and asked for coffee! The waitress showed me a menu with a list of coffees in English and I ordered “Columbian.” It came in a very pretty cup with a server holding artificial creamer (uck) and sugar; tasted just like Nescafe. Sigh. Oh well, maybe I'll just become a tea drinker.
Speaking of Food:
The BiMBA welcome packet includes, along with a list of my students (and each one's picture by their names!), helpful information about the restaurants all around the campus, and a list of menu items in English with the Chinese right next to each, so that I can presumably just point to the menu when ordering. Here are some things listed on the menu that I will NOT be ordering:
The Café also offers a concoction they call “Perfect Conjugal Bliss,” which is strawberry and vanilla ice cream, and at the bar (where I'll be in a little while as I wait for Barrett to arrive), I can get TsingTao beer, or a Corona, or a margarita (I might have to order one just to see what it looks like), Long Island Iced Tea, “Chivas Regul 12 Years,” and a snack called “Cecilia Fried Beef Steak.” (Who is this Cecilia and how does she fry steak?)
Ellen Goes on Tour:
At 11 AM, a graduate student from the University named Allan Wong arrived, hooked up my computer to the internet (yay!) and whisked me off for a walking tour of the campus. Allan speaks very good English, although I had trouble understanding him sometimes: He told me he had applied to 17 colleges in the US for his PhD work, including one called—as I heard it—“the University of Carnuel.” Of course he meant CORNELL University, in NY.
Allan took me to a dumpling restaurant, after explaining to me that the three restaurants right next to each other each had their own specialty: One served rice dishes, one noodles, and one dumplings. I chose the dumplings. They were FABULOUS—very tasty (and I was very hungry after my light breakfast). They came with a little dish of tiny chopped scallions, celery, and carrots—very salty, and a little bowl of corn soup, which was very bland. (I dumped my salty veggies into the soup. Nowhere did I see a salt shaker.) Allan offered me a Kleenex from a pack in his pocket, explaining that these restaurants do not have napkins (?). I don't know how I'll ever be able to order food in one of these places by myself as there is no English anywhere and no pictures. Maybe I'll just have to point at what other people are having and hope for the best? Oh, and while we were there a very nice blonde woman sat at our table and introduced herself as Andrea from Finland! We had a nice chat about the similarities between Finland and China. (They are both cold, she said.)
After that, Allan and I walked around the campus, with me taking pictures and he explaining different sights and sites. See the pictures below for what I saw.
That's all for now. Barrett will be in tonight and I'm assuming we'll go out to dinner together and he'll fill me in on more of the ropes: Like, will it ever be possible for me to get a decent cup of coffee here?
Day Two: In which Ellen goes to Tiananmen Square, freezes her butt off, pees in a hole in the ground, and finds coffee!
Work, Work, Work: Got to Protect our Phony-Baloney Jobs:
Spent the morning with Barrett (who brought me here to teach the other half of his too-large “Executive Communications” class, bless him). We ate breakfast at a buffet in another part of this hotel: Scrambled eggs, rice with eggs, boiled sweet potatoes, lots of different breads and dumplings, sautéed spinach and cabbage, and a whole mess of different things that I had no idea what they were and didn't feel like experimenting with. Not for breakfast, anyway. Maybe later in the day. Also had the weakest coffee ever made (sort of coffeeish water). But the buffet was quick, filling, and cost only 10 yuans ($1.25). And I didn't have to order anything; I could just pick whatever looked good to me. I'll probably be eating there fairly often. (Maybe I'll try some of the more “exotic” things later.)
Then we went over to the BiMBA complex (see picture below) and met with our course administrators and helpers. I saw the room I will be teaching in—one of the administrators told me it used to be the office of a king! It's a most amazing and beautiful room.
Off to See the Sights:
After lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place (with FABULOUS food—sweet and sour soup, mushu pork, sautéed broccoli, lovely hot tea—I may never be able to eat Chinese food in the states again), we took off to Tiananmen Square with one of Barrett's “drivers”—guys who hang around the University looking for fares to taxi about the city. We zoomed down the freeways in this guy's little box of a car, gears screeching and engine chugging all the way. I was afraid the car would break down at any moment, in the middle of a massive traffic jam. But no, we made it and he dropped us off at Tiananmen Square, where it was bitterly cold (and windy!). Here is a picture of me and Mao in the background (me freezing; him hanging):
And here is one of Mao closer up (and by the way, this is also the entrance to the Forbidden City):
Two things I'm grateful I brought with me to China: My Irish Aran sweater and Irene's down coat. Both kept me from frostbite!
Photos do not do justice to the Forbidden City, which is immense and amazing. I had no idea it would cover so much ground. (As Barrett reminded me, “It's the Forbidden CITY for a reason.”) So I will not include the photos here except for this one: I found a Starbucks in the Forbidden City! And had a mocha latte grande. Ahhhhhhhh.
Oh, and I also bought a pendant with my name on it in Chinese. (Barrett swears that it is pretty close to my name. It could be “Melvin” for all I know.) And two refrigerator magnets, one that has a dragon and says China and another that says Beijing. And I did have to squat over a porcelain hole in the floor in the ladies'. Another adventure in plumbing!
Tomorrow will be a working day as Barrett and I prepare to teach on Saturday, so I will not write a diary entry for that day. But I'll be back on Saturday (your Friday) to let you know how it is teaching Chinese students in China!
Day Three: In which Ellen loses a glove, pees again in a hole in the ground, and gets better at using chopsticks.
Adventures in Eating:
It turned out that Barrett and I didn't need all day to prep for tomorrow's class, so off we trekked to a language school outside of the university grounds (where Barrett is studying Chinese and where he wanted to go to set up his class schedule) and on the way we popped into a nice-looking restaurant for lunch. Barrett asked (in Chinese, which I think he speaks very well!) whether they had an English menu or at least one with pictures and the waitress said yes, one with pictures, so in we went. Turned out that there was a picture at the top of each SECTION of the menu, so you could tell if you were on the “chicken” or “duck” page, for example, but everything else on the menu was, of course, in Chinese characters. Barrett did the best he could to figure out what was what, but we ended up pretty much ordering dishes not knowing what they actually were. All was well, as we got a huge bowl of a very tasty soup (don't ask what's in it, one Chinese guide book I read advised, and of course we didn't), a plate of very spicy and garlicky green beans, and a plate of cubed chicken and hot peppers. Very tasty, very spicy. Yum!
I forgot to tell you all that last night when we ate in the hotel's restaurant, where the menu DOES have dishes listed in English, one of the items on the menu was “broiled goose foot” with a PICTURE of a goose's foot, broiled!!!!! So I was very relieved to find that we had NOT ordered that!
Then for dinner tonight, we went to a restaurant within spitting distance of our hotel. (Did I mention already that Chinese men spit fairly frequently in public? It's very gross, but at least they signal that they're GOING to spit with a loud “Hhhhaaaaaawwwwwwkkkkkk!” BEFORE they spit, so one can conveniently get out of the way.) This time the menu had not only pictures, but also English listings of the offerings, which included “Eggplant and Fried Bees.” (Can that be possible? I didn't want to find out.) We got HUGE portions (all servings are HUGE) of a tasty eggplant concoction (sans bees), braised pork ribs (teeny tiny ribs), and snow peas. And Chinese beer (Yingjang).
Both lunch and dinner each cost about 44 yuan. That's about $5.46. For two people. Including beer! And no tip. (No tipping here.) At this rate, the 8300 yuan they gave me when I got here will last a goodly while.
And no, they don't have knives or forks at any of these restaurants. It's chopsticks or your fingers. (You can get a spoon if you're desperate.)
The Summer Palace, Under Construction
In between lunch and dinner we took a taxi to the Summer Palace, which is really an entire complex of acres and acres of park and pagodas and an iced-over lake. (Did I mention that it's really cold here? Although it seemed much warmer today than yesterday when we were freezing at Tiananmen Square.) Here's a picture of the entrance to the Summer Palace:
And here's a picture of the iced-over lake, with people sort of shoe-skating on it:
The “Last Emperor's” (if you've seen the movie) mother, the Empress Cixi, had this “Marble Boat” built so she could be on a “boat” but not actually on the water (of which she was deathly afraid):
“It is good to be the Empress!”
And yes, once again I had to squat to pee in the public restroom. And I left one of my gloves in the taxi that took us there. (But I can buy another pair at the mini mart for about $3.00, so no big whoop.)
Unfortunately, the major part of the Summer Palace (the big pagoda/temple on the hill) is under construction/renovation, as were many buildings in the Forbidden City. All of this renovation, of course, is for the 2008 Olympics (for which there are advertisements EVERYWHERE). So boo hoo, we didn't get to see them, but if I'm here in 2008 they'll be spectacular.
I need to get Barrett to write down the words for “restroom” for me in case I'm out and about without him. (It probably translates into “hole in the ground”!)
Day Four: In which Ellen falls in love with her students, wanders around campus on a beautiful day, manages to cross a busy street without getting run over by a car or a bicycle, and buys a corkscrew.
It's a Beautiful Day in the Bei Da Neigborhood:
“Bei Da” is the short form for “Beijing University.” See how quickly I am learning Chinese? ?Seriously, the weather today was spectacular: cool but not cold, no wind, sun shining brightly, no smog—I could imagine that I was in New Mexico, except, of course, for all the Chinese people all over the place. (I told my students that I brought the nice weather with me from Albuquerque.)
So after class (more on that below), I took off to wander the campus, poking around and observing the sights. Here's what I saw:
It is Good to be the Teacher in China:
I have 34 students in my “Executive Communications” class. About half are women. All the students have undergraduate degrees from various universities around China. (One has a degree from a school in England.) All of them are bright, earnest, and INCREDIBLY polite. And yet I soon found that they all have wonderful senses of humor and laughed heartily at all my “jokes.” I'm going to have so much fun teaching this class!
Many of my students go by their Chinese names (Kang Chen, Peng Guo, Qiang Huang, etc.). Others have adopted “English” names (Vivian, Sabrina—there are two each of these in the class—and Jason, Rock, Eliza, Helena, Wendy, and “Carry.”) I have to admit that I will have an easier time remembering the English names! But I will do my best to learn their “real” names, as well.
I managed to shop in the huge “mini” mart by myself and this time did NOT buy salt instead of sugar, LOL! And it was easy to find a spoon, a bowl, a corkscrew, and a box of corn flakes. I'm set now for breakfast and another bottle of Great Wall wine (which seems to be the only kind they sell around here).
Day Five: In which Ellen has another wonderful class, visits some really old Chinese people, and makes random observations.
Could These Students be any Nicer?
They participate, they ask questions, they smile all the time. I'm going to marry all of them. Especially the student who was absent today (“Eliza”) and sent me this email:
I'm the student from BIMBA PT05, My name is Eliza Shen. I'm really sorry to inform you that my stomach got very pain this morning. So I can't come to school today. Even I just took one lesson from you yesterday, I'm really impression about your teaching style and your pleasant personalities.
About the first essay, I'm afraid that I can't hand over the hard copy to you on time. So I attached it in the mail. Very sorry about the incontinent to you.
Off to the Museum of Archaeology:
After class, I “skyped” with Don for awhile (if you don't know what Skype is, you should definitely check it out) and then set out for more meanderings, it being another warm, beautiful day. This time I wound up at the Somebody Museum of Archaeology, where I saw many fragments of Pleistocene Chinese.
The iced-over but quickly melting lake in the middle of the campus was crowded with skaters: From where I stood to take this picture, I could see holes in the ice. No one fell in while I was watching though, darn it.
Many people on the ice were actually toodling around on metal chairs affixed to a board with metal runners, like this:
Nearby, I came across this statue: I have yet to find anyone who can tell me what Miguel Cervantes (“Don Quixote” author) is doing on the Beijing campus.
And finally, here is an example of how one must just go where the wind blows one because the signage isn't going to be any help at all:
OK, so now, after another FABULOUS dinner (spicy green beans, sweet and sour chicken, shrimp and cashews, Tsingtao beer), which cost us only about $12 for two, I am back in my hotel, typing this, and watching next to me the only channel in English on local TV, where the weatherman (non-Chinese) is a dead ringer for Pee Wee Herman.
Curiouser and curiouser continues . . . .
Day Six: In which Ellen walks all over the seedier side of town, eats an egg and bread for breakfast, and observes more local oddities.
Today's Weather Report: Ick ack gack!
I THINK the sun was shining today, but it was very hard to tell through the thick smog. It was really terrible—you couldn't even see the buildings across the campus. I saw many people wearing protective masks. Barrett says it's like this MOST of the time. Oh, dear.
These Feet Were Made for Walkin':
After an hour or so of paper grading (and laughing a lot at my students' amazingly mangled sentences: “Bimba have not set up a effectively communication system,” is one example), I headed off with Barrett to his Chinese language lesson, during which I walked all over a rather gritty section of the city. Finally found refuge in a very nice bakery/coffee shop (“Tous Les Jours” of all names), where I had a café mocha grande that was cheaper and bigger and better than any Starbucks and where there was a tree growing inside the place with a sign hanging on one limb that read, “NO WARTERING PLEASE.” Then another walk back to campus and a lovely dinner at one of the many university restaurants. (I've never been to a campus that had so many restaurants ON the campus itself.) Dinner (tomato and tofu soup, a beef dish, spring rolls, beer, rice) was 48 yuan for two (or about $4.00).
Tomorrow's plan: A trip to the Great Wall!
Day 7: In which Ellen discovers a jazzercise step class at the Great Wall, eats more yummy dumplings, visits a Ming in a Box, haggles for souvenirs, and survives another wild ride on a Chinese expressway.
It's Not Called “Great” for Nothing:
I had no idea that climbing the Great Wall would be so aerobic! My leg muscles are still jumping hours later. Here's a picture of part of my climb (a relatively easy part!):
Up and up and up (and then down and down and down) on a very cold and windy day. But once again my Aran sweater (and Irene's down coat) stood me in good stead and I was actually sweating after the long clambering.
The view was not as spectacular as it could have been, as it was very cloudy with limited visibility. Here, however, are some of the sights I actually did see:
A camel! (Upon which one can perch, in period costume, for some sort of price. I didn't try this.)
Here is a better view of what I saw from the top of a long climb:
And then we stumbled upon a group of young Chinese from the countryside who asked that I get in the picture with them, along with my wonderful young (25 yrs. old) guide, Allan (not his real name): That's Allan (he's very tall, relatively speaking) behind and to my right. Don't know who the young women are, but I invited them all to come stay with me in Rio Rancho. (Note to Don: Better get the spare bedroom ready right away!)
Even the Great Wall itself is not immune to very pushy vendors.
Later, after we descended, we went “shopping,” with Allan posing as my “Agent Bargainer.” It was a real hoot to watch him express great disdain for the item I was interested in, calling it (he told me later) “cheap” and insisting that they lower the price. He was very good (I have taken due note of his strategy) and managed to get the price down from 160 yuan to 80. So for about $10 US, I got a cool Chinese mask, a red t-shirt that says, “I climbed the Great Wall of China” (I'm a tourist; so sue me), and a really cool faux fir red guard hat with ear flaps and a red star (which I'm giving to Don if his head isn't too big).
We stopped for lunch at a dumpling restaurant (with no heat inside so it was like eating outside) and I got another chance to practice my chopsticks facility with slippery food. (None of the restaurants have forks, so you have to use chopsticks or wimp out and ask for a spoon.)
Then off we went to see the (ta da!) TOMBS OF THE MING EMPERORS!
We actually saw only one tomb, that of an Emperor called Ding. (And the word for tomb is “ling,” so it was actually the “Ding Ling” site.) It was really not that interesting. Here are the red boxes in which the archaeologists who excavated the site in the 50s found the skeletons of the Emperor and his Empresses (he had two of them):
Much prettier was the gate that we passed through to get to the tomb:
As well as a kind of temple over the tomb itself:
At this point, I was totally exhausted from all the climbing and walking and the best I could do was take pictures of funny signs, including these;
I think by "credence," they must have met "credenza."
"It is old fashioned to carry a camera around?"
There were no Chinese in there. Just Westerners ponying up $3.50 US for a cup of cappuccino (28 yuan).
Even the ride back to the Beida campus and my hotel was an adventure, with my driver (a nice woman called “ Miss Jiao,” who also drove me from the airport a full week ago)
honking and fighting her way through rush-hour traffic, with me covering my eyes frequently. I will NEVER drive here!
OK, that's enough. I'm pretty near comatose from today's exercise. I think I'll relax tomorrow and spend the day grading papers. A quote from one of the papers I've graded so far:
Understand the challenge and concerns for the school, as Professor may feel tired if a whole day class, to retire this challenge, could plan more interaction during the class. While the good thing today is: for the professor, any way he/she has to have a whole day class, the only half day is students. So should not be a problem.
If anyone reading this can tell me what this paragraph means, I'll give you an A!
Day Nine: In which Ellen doesn't do much out of the ordinary, so this will be short.
A Beautiful Day at Bei Da:
Too bad I didn't go to the Great Wall today, as the weather was much nicer than yesterday. Oh, well.
Speaking of the weather, I just caught Pee Wee Herman on TV reporting the weather for “Asia” and Saudi Arabia. Way to make me feel way out in the middle of nowhere!
Barrett and I hung out in our office in the morning, grading papers. (My favorite opening line so far: “I am so glad to be one of the students of BiMBA PT05. After half year study in BiMBA I feel it is quite worthwhile to apply for this course, spend my time and effort though my leisure life gone in the meanwhile.”)
Then back to the hotel to work on the Irish society newsletter and then out for a walk around the lake, where people are still ice skating (and chair skating), even though the edges of the lake have seriously melted. (Still didn't see anyone fall though the ice. Dang.) I came across a woman selling doodads from a card table and decided to practice the haggling techniques my guide Allan taught me yesterday. It went like this:
Me (holding up two cards with cool Chinese bookmarks—four of them—on each): How much? Chinese Woman: 30 yuan. Me: No, too much. How about 15? [Always start with half Allan said.] CW: No, no, 30. Me: No, too much. 15. CW: OK, 25. Me: No, too much. 15. CW: 25.
Me: OK, 20. CW: No, no, 25. Me: No, no, too much. 20. CW: No, no, 25. Me: OK, then I don't want them. [And I hand them back to her.] CW: OK, OK, 20! Me: Cool. [She laughs.]
20 yuan comes to about $2.48 US. So I got each card with four bookmarks for about $1.25. And I'm sure she made a profit, too. A win-win situation!
I continued my walk around the lake and came upon a man in a sheltered corner of the park, doing a beautiful tai chi routine. And then I also came upon a man practicing his rock climbing technique on this “rock wall” structure. He was absolutely graceful and fluid—almost like he was dancing on the wall. I was mesmerized for quite some time watching him.
A Little Shift of Culture:
Barrett and I went out for dinner tonight to a (of all things) JAPANESE restaurant, staffed exclusively by Chinese, of course. But the sushi was wonderful. (I love sushi.) The “white wine,” on the other hand, was terrible. Warning to wine lovers: When you come here to visit, you may not be able to find a decent chardonnay. At least I haven't found one yet. The Tsingtao beer, however, is nice.
That's it for today! Tomorrow Barrett and I are going shopping at “Silk Alley.” Should be very interesting!
Day Nine: In which Ellen goes on a mad shopping spree in “Silk Street” and bargains like a pro.
OK, so this is really a lot like shopping in Juarez:
Today Barrett and I headed off to this indoor, 4-story “mall” of individual little bitty shops, with different categories of goods on each floor, and with EVERY SINGLE LITTLE BITTY SHOP ON EACH FLOOR SELLING EXACTLY THE SAME THING. Just like shopping in any other tourist city. Although here I think it is the worst I've seen, like walking though a gauntlet of piranhas, all these Chinese women crying “Lady! You need this? You like this? Come see! Come see!” and grabbing at me and poking me and just general ickiness.
I managed to buy quite a few cool things, from tea set to silk jacket to “jade” ring to chopsticks. I think I even managed the bargaining thing pretty well. One vendor asked for 2800 yuan for a silk shawl and a silk jacket ($348.00) and I got her down to 600 yuan ($75). It's good to get such a “deal,” but I'm already tired of the whole haggling scene. It'd take a lot less time if they'd just list a reasonable price in the first place.
Work, work, work:
Spent the rest of the day prepping for class on the weekend and will do more so tomorrow. So there may be a lull in the diary-keeping for awhile. Barrett and I are planning to go see some Chinese opera soon, so that should make for an entertaining entry!
Day 11: In which Ellen doesn't do anything out of the ordinary, but has some more interesting observations:
[Note: No diary yesterday, as it was just a class prep day.]
My Chinese Students:
They are all just so friendly and polite and they try very hard. But they haven't a clue about working together in self-directed groups. I learned this the first weekend, when there was pretty much mass confusion when I put them into groups and asked them to “brainstorm” topics for their presentations. They couldn't do it. So this Saturday I gave them very specific directions (on slides for them to read as well), and asked them individual questions. I think this worked much better all around.
They also love to laugh and have very good senses of humor. But (and this is why I always advise this in my US classes) they don't get “jokes.” I told the class that humor was important, but that they should avoid jokes at all costs. One student asked me why. I answered, “OK, let me tell you a joke in English, and then you tell me why a speaker should not tell jokes.”
Here's the joke: Two cannibals are having dinner. [I had to stop here and make sure everyone knew what a “cannibal” was.] One cannibal turns to the other and says, “I hate my mother-in-law.” The other cannibal shrugs and says, “Well, just eat the noodles.”
As you can imagine, the entire class just stared at me, dumbfounded. Then I had to explain that most English-speaking students have the same reaction! (Although later that day, when I told Barrett and another American that same joke, they both laughed out loud.)
I wonder how they would have reacted to this classic Henny Youngman joke: A man is walking on the street. A hooker goes up to him and says, “I'll do anything for 5 bucks.” The man says, “Paint my house!”
(That's one of my all-time favorites.)
A Saturday Afternoon on the Bei Da campus:
. . . and EVERYONE is outside because it's such a beautiful day, nearly warm! There are 50,000 students here and I believe they were all out and about today, playing tennis, playing basketball, rock-wall climbing, and ice skating. I finally did see someone fall through the ice (which does appear to be rapidly melting), but not to worry—the lake is only about 3 feet deep! He just climbed right out.
. . . are ridiculously cheap here—13 yuan (or $1.61). I bought “Cinderella Man” as I hadn't seen it. It plays just fine on my computer.
. . . is not as bad a problem as I thought it would be. Yes, there are no “no smoking” areas in restaurants, but it's rare that I've seen anyone smoking in a restaurant, at least not enough to bother us. There is a sign in my hotel room that says, “No smoking in bed.” The smokers I have seen have all been men.
More on the Food:
The food has been overall just delicious (and so cheap). But today for lunch one of our side dishes (the University provides our lunch on workdays) included a tasty stir-fried veggie (Bok choy, I think), which I was eating with relish (I am getting very good at using chopsticks, having no other choice) until I put my glasses on and noticed that the little white things in the veggie, which I thought were pine nuts, were actually MAGGOTS!!!!!!!!! No, no, no, Barrett assured me. They were just “tiny shrimp.” OK, yeah, right. No more bok choy for me.
There are all kinds of different flavors of Lays potato chips, most of which I've never seen in the US. Tonight I'm munching on “Italian Red Meat Flavor.” Not bad, actually.
The female students for the most part dress very stylishly (lots of dressy boots with spike heels) and the average dress size is 2.
A small kvetch before I go off to teach class Sunday morning, Feb. 19 (it's late Friday pm where you are):
The air is very dry here (much like New Mexico) and the water from the tap is very hard and between them both my hair has enough static electricity that if I could rub my head against the ceiling I would stay stuck there!
Day 13: In which Ellen goes shopping with a real Beijinger (by way of Australia) and eats hot Szechwan food near a tank of giant frogs.
My afternoon with Elizabeth Wang:
My friend PJ Kennedy from the Irish-American Society in Albuquerque told me that he had a good friend in Beijing named Elizabeth Wang and that we should get together. So we did today. Turns out Elizabeth and PJ have never met, but have been friends for some years over the internet. (She has helped him with his computer; he has helped her with her English lessons.) For the last two-some years, Elizabeth has been living (and getting her MBA) in Australia; she just recently arrived back here, where her parents live. She sounds exactly like a cross between a Chinese and an Australian person, if you can imagine that.
Here is Elizabeth (above) on another cold gray day in Beijing.
Notice that she is giving the “V” for victory sign. I have seen countless Chinese people do this when their picture is being taken. I'll have to ask Elizabeth why when I see her again later this week.
So anyway, Elizabeth took me shopping at this indoor “mall” of teeny tiny shops all selling the same thing. AND she made me go there with her by bus! That was an experience in itself—every bus was crammed full of people all pushing and shoving and trying to get on or off. The price was right (only 1 yuan, or about 15 cents), but I'm taking taxis from now on. I did get some more cool souvenirs, though, and Elizabeth did all the haggling for me and made sure that I paid a “fair” price for everything. It was really a hoot to watch the body language of the vendors as she insisted that (I'm guessing this is what she said) their stuff was “crap.” (OK to get crap at the right price, though!)
My dinner with Elizabeth and Barrett and Helen and What's-His-Name:
After shopping, Elizabeth took me to this Szechwan restaurant, where we met her friends Helen (not her real name) and her husband (whose name I didn't get) and Barrett. The Chinese were teasing me about what to order for dinner, especially when I noticed that some of the large fish tanks behind me actually held a slew of really big frogs! (And I mean REALLY big—each about the size of a size-8 shoe.) At first I thought they were just ceramic frogs, and then one of them moved. (Shudder!) I really have no problem with the waitress bringing out our fish alive and flapping, to show us how fresh it is before they cook it (this happened to us last night, and the resulting dish was very good), but I don't think I'm up to picking out my own live frog before I chow down on its legs.So we didn't have frog (at least I THINK we didn't!) and the dishes were all very tasty and very spicy. Here is a picture of the five of us at dinner:
So now Elizabeth has invited me to take a trip with her (next week?) on the train to the city of Xi'An (shee-an), to see the famed “Terracotta Warriors.” (http://www.imperialtours.net/terracotta_warriors.htm)
I'm thinking this might be another really interesting experience, especially to travel with a Chinese woman. 16 hours by train from Beijing. Hmmmmm. Odyssey or idiocy?
Days 14, 15, 16: In which Ellen dines at a Thai restaurant and solves the vacuum cleaning problem, goes bar hopping at the Lotus Market, narrowly avoids eating camel, and finds western nirvana at the Kempinski Hotel.
Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down:
On Tuesday, Barrett and I had lunch with a former student of his named Lily (not her real name). The food was wonderful (I've always liked Thai food and we have some good Thai restaurants in Albuquerque), but while talking to Lily we also figured out a solution to a problem I had brought to Barrett's attention that morning:
I had noticed in the last few days that the crumbs on the floor around my desk in my hotel room (where I check email and eat breakfast at the same time) were not disappearing on a daily basis, as one would assume they would do in an American hotel. And as I frequently have a “Nature Valley Granola Bar” for breakfast (it's one of the few products I can recognize in the mini mart), I had crumbled quite a few large chunks around my feet. “They're not vacuuming every day,” I thought to myself. “Hell, they haven't vacuumed ONCE since I arrived, over two weeks ago!” Barrett said he just noticed this, too, but had not yet learned the Chinese words for “please vacuum my room,” and who knows WHAT they might do if he got the phrasing wrong. So we asked Lily how to say, “Can you please vacuum my room,” and I got her to write it down for me.
Later that day, I found my “servant” (the Chinese word for waitress and house cleaner, etc. translates into “servant”) and showed her the piece of paper. “No problem,” I think she replied. And later that day, my room was indeed vacuumed. Crisis averted!
Funny how the little details mean so much, eh?
Cantonese Food and Night-Club Hawkers: Am I in New Orleans or What?
We did indeed have a fabulous dinner on March 1 at a Cantonese restaurant in the Lotus Market district, where the street vendors try to force you to buy cigarettes (ick ack gack) before you even get near the restaurant and where middle-aged folks turn on a CD player in the parking lot and about 30 couples dance (sort of lindy-style) outside, with their coats on, in the cold! (Elizabeth says they do this every night, “for the exercise.”)
We did indeed go “bar hopping,” but that means that we hopped from bar to bar; we didn't actually go in any one, despite the pleas of the hawkers. But we did take some pictures.
Here is one of Selena (not her real name)and Barrett and Elizabeth and me—the shortest one in the group!
And here's one of me in front of another Starbucks. (Yes, Barrett says that the Chinese above my head actually says “Starbucks.” I thought it might translate as “Drink this, suckers.”)
WHAT is That on the Menu?!?!
On Thursday, March 2, Barrett and I had lunch with Yi Xie (her real name, pronounced Eeeee She-eh), who is in charge of the Cross Cultural Education and Research dept. at Bei Da. A delightful lady! And she will be visiting Santa Fe in July, so I will get a chance to return her the favor for lunch.
Speaking of which, we ate at a “Muslim” restaurant, with an English/Chinese menu that included lots of lamb dishes (yum) and interesting flat bread, and delish spicy noodles, and these tasty offerings: Sauteed Pig Genitals, Baked Horse, and Fried Camel Metacarpus.
OK, from now on I'm not going to look at the menu. (No, we didn't eat any of those. I think.)
Later that Day, at the Kempinski:
Barrett and I headed out in search of a little western flavor and wound up at the Kempinski, a very luxurious (and very expensive, natch) hotel in the heart of Beijing. We had martinis in the lounge:
And then a fabulous dinner at an Italian restaurant, along with an entire bottle of a very lovely Pino Grigio. (Ah, finally a decent white wine!) It all cost about as much as we have spent in an entire WEEK eating at the local restaurants. But worth every “kuai” (slang for yuan, like saying “buck” for “dollar”). I was so relaxed after all this that for once I didn't have to put my hands over my eyes as the cab driver careened down the Beijing streets back to our hotel, missing other cars and bikes and people by mere inches.
But the biggest find of all was—
WE FOUND AN IRISH PUB! And made reservations for St. Patrick's Day! The place is called “Durty Nellie's” and might be part of a chain? (I just googled the name and found a “Durty Nellies” in Limerick, Chicago, Amsterdam, and San Francisco.)
Here is the sign to the pub: But when we got to the front door, we were momentarily taken aback by the ramshackle appearance and thought maybe the place was closed, despite the “open” sign:
Can you see what Barrett is pointing to here? Little hand-written letters that say, "Irish pub" in pencil!
But we screwed our courage to the sticking point and went inside and found a very real-looking Irish pub with Guinness on tap and this very Irish-looking Colleen to wait on us:
I'm planning to buy me one of those shirts (like what she's wearing) when we go back on the 17th, Erin go bragh to ye all!
Days 17, 18, 19: In which Ellen whoops it up with the locals at a nationalistic Chinese ballet, goes to hell at a Buddhist temple, narrowly avoids eating a Chihuahua, buys a coffee maker (yay!), watches the Chinese fly a kite (or two or three), and experiences duck tongue and a boring bar.
The administration of BiMBA (our employer) gave Barrett and me tickets to see the ballet “Raise the Red Lantern,” performed on campus at the University theater. (A quick quiz, boys and girls: Do you think a ballet with such a title might be just the SMALLEST bit propagandistic? Please describe your assessment in 500 words, single spaced. Grammar will count.) Actually, the production was visually spectacular and the dancing was very impressive. The plot, of course, was a sort of cross between Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The King and I, with toe shoes. Here's a description (with a link) from an online review:
With an unsurpassed repertoire that includes dozens of traditional classics, the National Ballet of China is one of the world's supreme ballet ensembles. Raise the Red Lantern (an adaptation of Zhang Yimou's award-winning film) is among the ensemble's most breathtaking accomplishments, displaying a uniquely Chinese style of ballet theater. This story recounts the fate of a young woman forced to marry an old feudal lord. His other wives, already jealous of each other, receive her unwillingly, and in the end, the tense family structure bloodily crashes down. "Exquisite beauty and impressive discipline.... Visually it is ravishing" (Weekly Telegraph, London).
The really funny part of the evening was the fact that despite the warning on the big signs on each side of the stage that read (according to Barrett), “No picture taking, no flash, etc.” and despite the fact that a guy came out on the stage at the beginning of the performance to tell the audience (according to Barrett), “No picture taking, no flash, etc.,” pretty much EVERYONE in the audience started snapping pictures as soon as the lights went down. And this went on through the entire performance. It was very distracting to me (especially the guy in front of me who was actually TAPING the show on his camcorder), and I can't imagine how distracting it must have been to the performers, but there ya go. Chinese. What can you do?
The audience did whoop at the end, me included.
On Saturday afternoon after my class, I met up with Elizabeth and she took me by subway (an interesting experience in itself) to Dongyue Buddhist Temple, somewhere in the heart of Beijing. Here I am at the entrance to the temple (pretty dull-looking, eh?):
And here is Elizabeth astride a “historical tablet” (on the back of a stone turtle):
The most amazing sights in this temple are the many many small rooms with different “departments” of heaven and hell, replete with these very strange statues. No picture taking was allowed of these (although I suppose I could have just pretended I was Chinese and then snapped away like they did at the ballet), but I did find a web site that does include info about this temple and its bizarre statuary:
After the temple, Elizabeth and I had a nice dinner at some very fancy restaurant in a multi-storied department store. As we walked in, there were eight people wearing the same outfits (all waiters/waitresses wear the same outfits) whose only job, as I could see, was to bow at us and say welcome as we passed by. I have found this to be very common everywhere: There are so many people here, every retail position appears to be overstaffed. Even at the mini mart, there are far more salespeople than necessary, with many of them just hanging around waiting for something to do.
I let Elizabeth order the food, which I think turned out to be a good idea. She showed me the menu, which was all in Chinese, but with pictures of some of the dishes. She asked me to pick which picture looked good, and so I pointed at one and said, “That looks good. What is it?” And she looked up at the writing above the dish and said, “Dog.”
[I'll pause here while everyone retches.]
OK, so I THINK I managed NOT to eat any dog meat that meal, but I guess I'll never know for sure. And by the way, the Chinese do seem to like dogs as pets, too. I've seen quite a few folks walking their dogs, which are always little moppy things with dirty coats. (Barrett keeps saying, “Why don't these people ever give their dogs a bath?!)
After dinner we went to a supermarket and I found a coffee maker for about $4.34 US. Good deal! And real coffee in the morning again, aaahhhhhh . . . .
Go Fly a Kite!
Sunday afternoon was a beautiful, warm day (if still very smoggy), so I headed off to a park to see what the Chinese would be up to and of course this is what they were doing:
Hundreds of people were in the park, flying hundreds of beautiful kites of many different shapes. (The Chinese invented kites, I believe, so it stands to reason that they would be big on this.) The park is quite extensive and must be quite beautiful when everything is green and flowering.
Sunday evening, Barrett and I hooked up again with Elizabeth and her friend Selena at what Elizabeth referred to as “the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing.” We let Elizabeth order the food (maybe we should stop doing that), and along with a very tasty eggplant dish, and a nice crunchy radish dish (one of my favorites), we had “pig trotters” (pig's feet, of course, mostly fat—I couldn't find any meat at all, but the Chinese LOVE fat and always leave it on the meat), some very nice sliced duck (I do like duck meat) and a large plate of (dare I say it?) duck tongues! Here's what they looked like:
They're in the dish at the left, below the bottle of what Elizabeth brought to the restaurant and what she assured us was “really strong Chinese liquor.” It was really strong, and tasted like a cross between everclear and turpentine.
They “made” me eat a duck tongue, but I could only get one down (it even had some little bones in it, yuck!).
After dinner we went to a strip of bars (with the usual annoying hawkers trying to drag us inside) and popped into one for a quick drink (watered down whiskey). Most of the patrons there were ordering six packs at a time of Corona! (With lemon slice; haven't seen any limes here.) And there was a “live” band of teenaged-looking folks who sang to a recorded background and peered out at us through clouds of smoke.
I don't think we'll be making the bar scene here again any time soon.
That's it for my 3rd weekend in China! Two more weeks to go and more adventures, I am sure, ahead!
Days 20 and 21: In which Ellen and Barrett cook their own food at the “Rinse and Grill Meat” restaurant and Ellen learns about how well Starbucks is doing in China and gets feted by dignitaries at a Chinese version of the Ed Sullivan show (replete with Flying Karamazov Brothers but sans Topo Gigio).