Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dian Fei (Electric Bill)

We got our electric bill paid right before the deadline. You know how each month you get a paper in the mail that tells you how much you owe? Not so in China! Here your bill is posted inside the elevator on a huge spreadsheet along with everyone else's in the building. Privacy? What's that!? It was interesting to see the contrast between us and them. They pretty much don't use electricity and we do. Our bill was 7 times what they owed!!! Most chinese don't have a fridge, toaster oven, heater, washing machine, computer or any of the "necessities" of westerners. We don't even use them that often! Except for the computers of course. I guess they don't use hot water for showers either. Anyway, I had no idea how to pay it. Others pay theirs at local banks but you have to have an account and a card and the machine that accepts your payment doesn't always work etc. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to this. Then, a few days before the due date, I saw our real estate agent at the bus stop and she agreed to help me on Monday. Monday morning, I came down the stairs to find our landlord waiting for me. She wanted to help me. She took me to get the account number and we set out. After walking about a mile, with her talking about how much our bill is, she stopped at a little post office booth on the back side of the local wal-mart. This is where you pay, she told me. I gave the woman my money, she gave me a reciept and as easy as that, we were done! Who knew you could post letters and pay bills all at the same place? Wonder what else you can do there.? It was so sweet of her to help us. She even took me to her apartment on our way back to get a phone number for me. I couldn't understand a lot of what she said, but I think the number was to a company that sells regulators for electricity so maybe we won't use so much next month. She's so thoughtful. She also lives up seven flights with no elevator and that day our elevator was out and we live on the tenth floor. But my hyperventilating is beside the point.

My Brain Runneth Over.

We have finished the first volume of our textbooks! 15 lessons in 13 days! Our brains have not exploded, which I find peculiar considering the 300 new vocabulary words, many of which are made of two or more characters. I am still amazed when I do my homework in characters. I look down at the writing and wonder how it got there. I asked a waitress last week what one of my sentences said and she read it, clear as day! She could read my writing! Amazing! Our teacher is very creative. Today she made an exercise for us with stickers. We had to paste the proper words to complete the dialogue. That is incredibly creative considering that school children don't play games, they are drilled and can sing complicated songs in other languages but not comprehend the meaning. Memorization is more important than comprehension and proper usage. To find a teacher like ours is rare here. We tell her often how much we enjoy her teaching. We are supposed to compose a paragraph describing our families to read aloud tomorrow. For Chinese that is easy, most only have their parents. I have three sisters and their families and Frank has five other siblings! This could take awhile. We also have to prepare for our review of the entire book which is in a few days. I guess I better put the blog down and pick up my book. We will let you know how it goes.

Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages
Dave Barry

There is the fear, common to all English-only speakers, that the chief purpose of foreign languages is to make fun of us. Otherwise, you know, why not just come out and say it?
Barbara Ehrenreich

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Day

We have recently been experiencing technical difficulty with our internet. That is why you have not heard from us. I didn't realize how much I rely on technology until it was gone. We were going crazy! I find that rather sad. The weather has changed here and when the sun doesn't come out, it affects our mood, mine especially. But, just when I think I would rather just curl up, the sun comes out and rejuvenates me. This morning after studying, I went grocery shopping. Equipped with my backpack and another bag inside it, I headed out. I usually end up taking the bus one stop more than I am supposed to because I haven't figured out which one goes where in this area. Sure enough, I had to walk a long way back for the little western store I frequent. I can get cheddar cheese, bagels, muffins, oatmeal and get this, Campbells soup!!! And it is about .50 per can! Tomorrow I am making chicken tetrazzini. That is so cool! After that with my backpack so full I could barely zip it, I headed to the real market. Oh yeah, I bought a huge stockpot too. Only one hand was free and I was already leaning backwards from the weight of the backpack. I found strawberries, raw peanuts, onions, bokchoy and napa cabbage. That filled the extra bag I brought. Then I had to carry it all the way home and up the first LONG flight of stairs. The elevator saved me the rest of the way. Doing this weekly has built up my strength quite a bit. Now I have a huge pot of peanuts boiling on the stove. Can you smell them? A little bit of the south here in the east! Frank had a guy fixing the internet here most of the day. He is really nice. It took about four hours to get everything set up, then he told us there was no charge. "We are friends", he said. WOW! He sat and talked for awhile, then came into the kitchen to see what I bought. Then he opened up the fridge and the freezer. He wanted to know what foreigners eat. I guess he was satisfied that we weren't too strange. So funny!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Class is in Session

We are finally able to start school! I am very excited. I haven't made much progress in my language skills since being here. It is easy to cheat and play the dumb foreigner by pantomiming and nodding. That is not good! I learn better in a structured environment with someone expecting me to be prepared. I guess that is why I loved school so much. (I know, I'm a nerd. Sorry) We start Monday morning bright and early. Every weekday from 8:30-10:30am we will be immersed in Chinese. We haven't recieved our textbooks yet but I know they contain writing exercises too. I will be writing characters!! I have actually been texting in characters to people I meet. The messages are very simple and usually checked by someone fluent, but every time I compose a message and hit send, I am amazed and grateful for the wondrous force that aids our natural ability to learn. Today, I looked at the bus routes and could recognize several characters. I don't know what they mean put together but I know what they are. It is a very weird sensation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Most Beautiful Province in China!

We recently visited several places in the Yunnan Province of China. This area is said to be the most beautiful in the whole country. It has the highest mountain ranges and the deepest valleys. We only had time to visit three places in this vast province; Kunming, Lijiang, and Dali. Frank wandered around the city of Kunming the first day while I visited ShiLin (Stone Forest) with friends. The "forest" is actually miles of rock formations believed to be caused by erosion over a very long period of time. It is like walking through caves and caverns above ground. We had inside information and were able to enter a part of the park that had no entrance fee. It also had no other visitors. We took a very backwoods trail through thick brush and steep inclines to get there. It was very much like the hiking I did as a child. Then we wandered for hours through the rocks all the way to the top of the mountain for a spectacular view. We sang familiar songs and yodeled to hear the echo. At times the caverns demanded complete silence, and we respected their request, quietly admiring the majestic beauty before us. We came away with a sense of awe for the wonders of nature provided for our enjoyment.
The next day was spent in Kunming's city center where there are markets and shops that would take days to explore. In the very center is a bronze map of Kunming on the ground about 20 ft. x 20 ft. Very impressive. We wandered the shops all day until it was time to catch the night bus to Lijiang. It is called a sleeper bus, but with bunks only big enough for children, pillows of metal and a driver that sends you sliding forward at every turn, there isn't much sleeping. I think Frank compared it to a coffin and that is pretty accurate. Your feet are encased in a metal sleeve that goes under the head of the person in front of you and there is a small rail on one side of you to keep you from falling out. Your other side is squished against the wall of the bus. Very cozy. About 3am the bus pulled over for breakfast, at 3 am! The "restaurant" was a large, dark, dirty room of tables and a few young girls in the corner making fried rice and noodles. The drivers were all in one corner playing cards and drinking. We checked; ours was having tea only. An hour later we were on our way and arrived around 7:30am. Lijiang is rather quaint compared to Kunming. The mountains in the background reminded me of pictures I've seen of Aspen, Colorado. The ancient city was all China though, winding streets of shops and hostels that held character and history around every corner. We made it to the top and found a cute coffee shop with a breathtaking view. No one was around, so we made ourselves at home. Frank discovered the free wireless connection and we decided to soak in the sun and the landscape while he surfed. "Can I help you?", we heard suddenly. The owner had arrived. We ordered coffee and commented on his very good English. "I'm from California", he explained. WOW! It is amazing the people you meet. We chatted for awhile and headed back down to visit another old part of town he suggested we see. ShuHe was just another tourist trap but the prices were much cheaper and we got to practice our haggling skills. Joe, the Chinese Californian, told us there was a Mexican restaurant in town and we decided to scout it out. It took us about an hour of hunting, about three or four different sets of directions from "helpful" passersby, but find it we did. Frosty Morning serves THE best hamburger in China. I know, it's a Mexican place, the tacos are ok too, but the burger is IT! I made the mistake of ordering tacos and missed out. Two large patties cooked perfectly, topped with mushrooms, onions, and... a pork chop. Served with fries. Frank did not know what to do with himself. If you ever visit Lijiang, you must visit David and his Aunt Maria at Frosty Morning for the Frosty Morning Burger. You won't regret it. We returned to the old part of Lijiang as the sun went down. The streets were lined with red lanterns and there was music in the air. It was absolutely beautiful.
We caught a bus to Dali the next day, about four hours away. Even if Dali had been a dump, I would have paid just for the ride. We had to delete pictures on the camera to make room for more because every turn was a masterpiece. The city itself was also very nice. It's a tourist trap but the prices are so reasonable for everything, hostel, food, and souvenirs, that you don't mind being trapped. It is a haggler's paradise and Frank had a ball. I bought a shawl for 15Kuai without bargaining and he got upset that I didn't try, so I told him fine, you do it, see if you can get this scarf for me too. Minutes later he walks out with the scarf which was set at about 45K. He paid 15K. He took to his newly acquired skill like a true shopaholic. Every time I turned around, he had another parcel in his hands. After ten minutes at one shop, the lady finally gave in with a sigh and a shake of her head. "You good bargainer", she said. Frank just smiled and cached his spoils with the rest of the loot. The highlight of the market was one art shop. There we found a 16 year old deaf boy selling his paintings. He was so cute, we all bought something from him and then tried to think of a way to bring him home with us. I learned a few new signs. He took a liking to me since I was trying to communicate and we spent about 30 minutes just talking and admiring his work. I don't think he was fluent in even Chinese Sign but he definitely knew the language of bargaining. He was so happy to sell his work, he was almost bouncing. We saw him later on in another part of the market and he ran up to us to tell us about another gallery further down. None of us had a suitcase big enough to put him in, so he had to stay behind. Too bad.
We finished up our trip back in Kunming mainly resting from the rest of the vacation. The plane took off in the evening and we are safely back home. Someday, we would like to come again to the most beautiful province in China.
PS- I have loaded more pictures on Kodak Gallery. Send a note if you would like to see.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Adaptation and Assimilation--- Possible?

Assimilation infers complete immersion, loss of one’s own culture in exchange for another. I think perhaps this is not a country that would allow that. We will always be outsiders here. However, adaptation is another thing altogether. This is possible, with patience, humility, and a willingness to learn. I believe China will permit us this. We have already been learning to adapt in many ways. The Asian toilet was a huge step forward. I guess that’s forward. Most of our cooking has been Chinese as well. Learning to do without a fridge as they do, has taught us simplicity and contentment. What we don’t have to eat, we simply don’t need. We like rice and that is non-perishable. We are given practical wisdom on a daily basis to use what funds we have in the best way possible. What to buy, what not to buy, a simple issue of contentment. There is something to be said for a simple life. Stress free for the most part, leaving more time and energy for the most important things. Walking everywhere keeps us healthy and allows time for meditation as does riding the buses. The language barrier keeps our minds active, searching for ways to chip it away.
It still surprises me how easily I have adjusted to city life, riding buses alone, walking for miles on my own in areas I have never been before. I am seldom fearful, lonely perhaps, but I can find my own way. I appreciate the air of small town life here though; the market where I can buy fresh cut meat and vegetables with garden soil still clinging to them, the little dogs and cats running free, and especially, the sound of hooves on our street in the wee hours of morning as the local horse-drawn taxi passes slowly by, merging with more modern traffic and disappearing into a cacophony of horns, security alarms and sirens. We are adapting, slowly. If we and they remain willing, I believe we can find our place here.
While we fully expect continued strength in our operations going forward, course correcting adaptations are vital to the execution of a focused agenda,
Barry Diller

Contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want, but the realization of how much you already have.

Shou Yu (Hand Language)

Here are some additional pictures for your enjoyment. There was a photo slump while the rain was here but things should pick up. Things are definitely getting busier for us. The most exciting thing happened to me on Saturday. While walking in a local market, I saw deaf people! Their picture is above. Before I could get nervous, I was tapping one on the shoulder. Before I knew it we were having a conversation (somewhat)!! They understood me!! It is amazing! Now I have to see them again and maybe they will help me learn their sign language and I can share what I know with them. I was so excited my face was beaming, or so I have been told. Perhaps I do not have to give it up after all. How awesome would that be? Anyway, here are the pics. Enjoy!