Friday, January 25, 2008

The Fall of the Party

From my parents' home in Hudson, Ohio, I send you my final posting. I spent 40+ hours traveling from Harbin to Hudson, first by train to Beijing, then airplanes to San Fransisco, Chicago, and finally Cleveland, and finally by car to home. I reeked of sweat and solitude. I was impatient with American civility (thought: "Why don't people just hurry up and get off the plane already?!"). I gawked at the abundance of facial hair (I'd guess 1 in every 4 men) and fat. I eavesdropped on thick Midwestern accents. I grinned at chaches (for those of you over the age of 25, read: jocks) trying too hard to look cool. I shuddered at the empty, sprawling suburban streets. I was home.

As promised, here are links to my final two albums of my family's trip to China. These are from our time in that southwestern city of 12 million, Chengdu.

Part I:

Part II:

And now, I sign off. This blog has fulfilled its purpose as a telegraph back home to our friends and our families, keeping them updated on how Lisa and I were doing in China. As for the future, no one knows what's in store for either of us. If you wish to keep in contact with us, please email us instead and we'll be sure to reply happily, speedily, and thoroughly.

Farewell, and godspeed, from the Party People's Republic of China.

Friday, January 18, 2008

One more photo album, and a second attempt with the first albums

I've heard that non-Facebook users have had problems accessing my first two albums, so I'm going try this again. Hopefully, these links will work.

First, the latest album, this one of our second day in Beijing.

Now, going backwards, our first day in Beijing:

Our trip to the Ice Festival in Harbin:

Our trip to the Tiger Park in Harbin:

These are the specified "public links," so everyone should be able to access them. I still have 1-2 more albums to put up from our time in Chengdu, so brace yourselves!

Also, I bought my plane ticket back to the States, and I'll be leaving China next Thursday afternoon.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Two More Photo Albums

As I said in my last post, I'll be gradually posting photos from my family's trip to Harbin, Beijing, and Chengdu. Here are the next two installments of that.

First, pictures from our trip to the Ice Festival:

Next, pictures from our first day in Beijing, when we walked around Tiananmen Square and toured the Forbidden City:

In other news, I have decided that I'm definitely going back home to the U.S. at the beginning of February. I realize that I need time to think and reflect on where I'm heading in my life, and I also miss my friends and family very much. I will probably spend part of my time in Northeast Ohio and part of my time in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

That is all for now. I'll post again with more photos and any further developments.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Tiger Park Pictures

In the next few days, I plan on posting all the good pictures from my recent trip with my family. The only problem with this is that my internet connections here (in Chengdu) are fairly slow, so it's taking a while. Here's a link to the album of our first full day in Harbin and our trip to the Tiger Park:

In other news, I'm in Chengdu right now, as alluded to above, and saw my family off today. The trip was very fun, and it was good to see them all again.

Right now, I'm hanging out at a Tex-Mex restaurant, enjoying chimichangas and a milkshake. It's the first time I've had Mexican food in about five months! I'm also currently staying at a youth hostel for the next few days while I explore a little more of the city. The place is nice, the people are friendly, and they've even got a bar/lounge on the top floor with a pool table.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for more pictures and news and maybe literary exercises describing things I've seen.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Pictures from the Ice Festival

Here's a link to an album of photos taken at the Ninth Annual Harbin Snow & Ice World. Now you know what they do for fun here in the dark Manchurian winters.

Single-Party Government

It's been a while since I've posted. I have several excuses for that, the foremost among them being that Lisa was heading home for Christmas and wanted to surprise everyone, and therefore we couldn't write anything on our blog without getting it away. Another excuse is that I've been busy with the last few weeks of class (exams today and tomorrow) and with preparing everything for when my mom and brothers arrive tomorrow.

But to write candidly, the main reason is that I've simply been in a bit of a depression as of late. Blame it on what you will – loneliness during the holidays, lack of sunlight in a far-northern city around winter solstice, the influence of the conclusion of the semester, the vicissitudes of human emotions, my own introverted personality – but in any case it's been real. I've been having a hard time doing anything in the past few weeks, much less write in this blog.

But last night, I believe I pulled myself out of it. Oddly enough, this happened by reading some entries from an older journal of mine, back from my last semester in college. It put things in a larger perspective for me, reminded me of the story of my life (at least as I told it to myself), of a time when I felt like I was accomplishing things, of days that I felt I could take on the world with a few swipes of my pen.

I think that one reason why I lost that larger perspective is because of the Sisyphean struggle that is foreign language study, especially with a language such as Chinese. It's strange, but you're never exactly sure how much progress you're making or how natural you do or do not sound. Some days, the boulder seems to be nearly at the top of that steep and craggy cliff; other days, it feels like I've moved it about three inches over the past four and half years.

Anyway, I'm sure you would all like to find out what I've been doing for the last few weeks. The truth is far less interesting that what you've been imagining, I assure you. Most days (and this includes New Year's Eve), I eat out, go to a café for internet access, watch a movie, study vocab words, and do laundry. For Christmas I took a trip down to Central Street to see how the young Chinese celebrate Christmas, and, since I had no camera with me, I'll try to capture it in words. That, however, will have to wait 'til my next post.

For now, that is all. Signing off, the sole party of this PRC,


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Poetry in Translation

I wrote this post a few days ago while sick in bed. I have a lot of things to write about - but you'll have to wait for an update update, I guess!


I originally thought that I would convince Tom to write this week's update, but we had an unfortunate turn of events: I have the flu. So he's going to teach my class this morning (aw), and I figure while I lie here in bed I should type up an update.

Getting sick in a foreign country is both a bummer and an interesting adventure. Riding the bus was a horrible experience, but I was surprised to find that thermometers cost 3 kuai (about 40 cents)! Also, my students were shocked that you can put a thermometer under your tongue - they use the armpit method here. A Chinese home remedy is to boil fresh ginger with brown sugar, which actually seems to have helped. (If you want to try it, I'd suggest going with molasses - the brown sugar here is really, really dark.)

I texted Kyla after a nap when my fever was climbing to ask at what temperature I should start to be concerned, as my thermometer was in Celsius and my temperature was already at 39. Turns out that's over 102. So, she sent Tom running out for a miracle fever drug that, according to her, only takes an hour before your fever is totally gone. He didn't notice until he got home that this miracle drug was nothing more than Ibuprofen, which we already had plenty of here. Strange, though: it comes in granule form, which you mix with water. Maybe it helps with faster delivery or something, but it's kind of gross.

Aside from that, nothing new here. I bought an electronic dictionary the other day - actually, Kyla bought it for me online, so she has it at her dorm and I'm going to pick it up on Monday - and it's really cool. The best part is that you can write on the screen with a stylus to look up characters, which is a big help if you don't know how they're pronounced (in a book dictionary you look characters up by separating them into parts, and it's time consuming).

[The following section discusses Chinese poetry in some detail. Two warnings: 1) If you are not interested in Chinese poetry, please skip! 2) Chinese poetry is a topic in which I am primarily self-educated. Just a caveat.]

We also bought a book of Tang Dynasty poems in Chinese and English recently. Unfortunately, the English translations are nothing short of horrid. The poor translator, a Dr. Xu Yuanchong of Peking University (the doctorate and the fact he teaches at the best school in China led me to believe the poems would be good), just doesn't understand English poetry. To demonstrate, let me quote a passage from the introduction of the book. Here, Xu is comparing a literal word-for-word translation, a free verse version (presumably by Arthur Waley, a prominent and well-respected translator of Chinese poetry), and his "poetical" version. I will spare you the agony of the actual poems - here is his explanation:

"If we compare these versions, we may say the second is faithful to the original so far as words are concerned, and the third is balanced as the first so far as lines are concerned. If we compare their diction, [in Waley's poem] we find 'range' is a geographic term and 'curve' a geometric one, and they are not so beautiful as 'bar' and 'gird' [in Xu's translation], for the one may be found in Keats' verse 'while barred clouds bloom the soft dying day.' And the other may remind us of Edmund Waller's poem On a Girdle."

Well, okay. Chinese poetry works like this - the art is in alluding to other masters' poems. Of course, English poetry has this feature too, but because Chinese poems are so succinct, it is sufficient to quote one or two words from another poem. But come on, Dr. Xu! that's like saying that the word "frost" is "poetical" because it reminds us of Robert Frost's poems.

If this weren't bad enough, Xu's understanding of "poeticalness" goes no further, so rhymes are almost always a simple ABAB or AABB scheme and based on spelling, not sound, and he pays no attention to meter or more complex rhymes, including assonance and alliteration. The result is something that sounds like a bored, talentless, 17 year old Victorian dandy's journal of "poetry."

All is not lost, however! While the English poems are painful, the Chinese ones are complete with pinyin for every character (roman letters that tell you how to pronounce the characters) and fairly detailed footnotes. Very informative!

So hey, if any hack with a Ph. D. teaching at Peking University can translate poems, then, well, so can I! As I'm house-bound with the flu, in lieu of movies or magazines, my sick-bed is flanked by my dictionaries, books of poems, and footnotes, and if my poems aren't perfect, at least they're better than Dr. Xu's. (Aw, poor Dr. Xu!)

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Relaunching and A Peek into Dongbei Drinking Culture

I wrote a post a while back and never posted it! Sorry, all. I've just decided that we're going to aim for at least one post a week. Many apologies that the site has been neglected - we've been very busy (well, I work every day on top of going to class, but Tom doesn't, so you'll have to ask him for his excuse). I get online once a week, so expect a post about every weekend.

The last post was about getting my hair cut (always an adventure; the guy gave me a very bad bob and was so nervous it took him an hour and a half!) and buying coats and warm shoes. So don't worry, everybody, we have warm coats. (Mine, a knee length goose down coat, cost $13!)

Yesterday was a strange moment for me. I was outside with my coat on but unzipped, and I was sweating. I thought, "Wow, the weather is really nice today! It's warmed up!" Then, I noticed the ice around our building wasn't melted... and when I got the weather report, I discovered the temperature was a high of 20F. Hah!

Anyway, things have been good recently. I've been very busy with work, and today is my day off! The school wants me to teach preschoolers at 9am on Saturdays, but I flat out refused (I even told them that I needed one day off a week, which is so spoiled and excessive here - but I don't care! Ha!). So today Tom gets a taste of working while I lounge around the house - but there is a lot of work to be done around here, so I don't think I'm actually going to be doing much lounging anyway.

Aside from work, we're busy with class and fun things, too. We've been hanging out with the Americans about once a week and our class has been spending more time together too. I hear tonight we're going bowling again, hurray! Thanksgiving was a little sad here, but not much. We went out with the Russians for dumplings, which was good. Later we heard that the Americans went out for a big American meal, but we missed that memo. Oh well. We did make a trip to Metro, the big German warehouse/grocery store that is full of imported stuff and bought some cheese (Irish cheddar and camembert!) and wine.

My adult students, whom I love, took me out to dinner last weekend. It was a lot of fun and my first experience of a meal out with a bunch of Chinese people. Let me tell you, it's exhausting - and not just because we speak exclusively in Chinese. Here's how it goes: everybody orders way more food than they could possibly eat, and a (big) bottle of beer for each person. At your place you have a saucer-sized plate, chopsticks, a spoon, a teacup, and a small glass.

The food is placed in the middle of the table on a lazy susan, which people turn as they want to eat dishes on the other side of the table. You eat out of the main dishes with your own spoon and chopsticks - I hear there was a movement to use "common use chopsticks," a set placed in each dish, but it's such a pain that practically nobody does. Also, it's a big no-no to dig around with your own chopsticks in a dish - that combined with the fact that people are extremely proficient with using them that hygiene is not too big of an issue.

At the start, everybody is poured a glass of beer - and everybody drinks it. (In fact, the Chinese word for "cheers" means "dry your glass" - and it's not a figure of speech.) Another glass is poured. You don't leisurely sip your beer. As everybody eats, picking from each plate, people "jing jiu" - I'm not sure how this is normally translated but it basically means you each chug a glass of beer. This, along with the rowdy (and increasingly so) conversation, functions as the entertainment of the night. More beer is inevitably ordered.

I hear that forcing people to drink is a common thing here - yes, bad, but maybe not as bad as it sounds. If you really can't drink, people won't make you, and it's not a frat party where they'll make you drink until you pass out - or die. That said, lines like "bu zui bu gui" ("if you're not drunk, you can't go home") are common. Refusing to drink when somebody "jing"s you is like refusing their friendship. However, my students were very clear that you only drink what you want - which really means if someone "jing"s you, you can drink a sip instead of the whole glass.

The drinking culture is so important here, especially in the Northeast, that we studied it in our Chinese class! It's not all bad, though. For example, when you make a toast and clink glasses, it's respectful for the mouth of your glass to be below the mouth of the other person. Usually this is to show respect to older people and important people, but between friends it means that they wrestle glasses to the table and even sometimes to the ground to have the lowest cup. It's quite cute. (I heard from a Canadian that the first time he drank in China he gave a hearty "cheers" and threw his glass up high, like we do in the West... and really offended all the people he was drinking with. Oops.)

So there you have it, drinking culture in China in a nutshell. In the end, by the way, we only ended up drinking about a bottle or two per person and the only people who got drunk were the baby of the group, a 17 year old (because he was trying to get drunk - he kept saying "I can still drink!" and of course if you do that somebody is going to "jing" you), and the oldest woman, a 30 year old (because everybody wanted to drink with "big sister," her nickname - it's a respectful term of address for people a little older than you. I can call elementary school kids "little brother/sister" and they call me "big sister" back. But I digress). So, for everybody at home concerned about our safety (or livers), no worries.

After dinner, the class went to sing karaoke - actually cool here, and a legitimate weekend activity! I tried to explain that in America singing karaoke is embarrassing and people usually only do it spur-of-the-moment while drunk at a bar, but they said, "Don't you like to sing?" (Well, yeah.) "So when you want to sing, where do you go?" (Uh... I sing in my apartment.) "But nobody can hear you that way!" Haha. Maybe next time I'll go with them and give you a full report on what it's like.

Well, that's all for now. I promise we'll be better about posting from now on - promise! We miss you all and hope all is well wherever you are.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Super Bowling

I bring you a tired, post-bowling update! Here's a reverse recap:

Our whole class (excluding two of the Russian girls - one is home for the weekend and one is visiting a friend in Shenzhen) went bowling tonight. We split up into two teams and had a very exciting, low-scoring competition, with a high score of 120 and a low of 7 (with 5 of those points scored in the 10th frame). I proudly announce that I clinched a win for my team... after bowling a horrendous game. Oh well. Each team won one and lost one, and we had a lot of fun together.

This all happened after we ate dinner together. We had that Chinese Competition this afternoon - more on that in a second! - and our class decided to go for Korean food. Best of all, our teacher came with us. She's really fun and about our age (25 I think?), so it's always good when she comes along... even with the obligatory reminder to review our vocab before class tomorrow. We tried to treat her to dinner, but she gave us 100 kuai and told us that she was treating us to bowling! She's so nice.

Anyway, that Chinese Competition! It ended up being a lot of fun. There were three parts: speeches, trivia, and performance. I missed the speeches because I was working, but I saw the other two sections and the performances were the best. I don't know why they wait so late in the year to do this, because there were at least 100 of us crammed in a classroom laughing and cheering on our fellow students, and it was a lot of fun. Today, all in all, was a lot of fun. Not bad for a Thursday!

Work is going well. I teach adults every week day and middle schoolers on the weekend - 8 hours a week in total. I'm not the best teacher, I guess, but I'm not the worst in this city either, so that's good. The adults are more fun but their English is horrible to non-existent, and the middle schoolers' English isn't bad but they're middle schoolers, not my specialty. Most - but not all - of them are well-behaved though.

Class is also going well. We have all our midterm grades back, and as usual Tom and I scored almost exactly the same: 100% for writing, 95% for speaking, 80% for comprehensive and 70% for reading. Our reading teacher... is not very good, which explains the two low scores (I lost most of my points on my comprehensive exam in the reading section... grr). Luckily, these grades don't count for anything! Woohoo!

The weather is getting cold. We haven't broken freezing for a few days and I think it's supposed to get to 0F tonight. Best of all, Tom and I still haven't bought coats, and I'm still wearing thin ballet flats. Actually, I get stopped several times every day with strangers telling me to buy warmer shoes. So we're going Saturday at the latest... perhaps even tomorrow after evening class. But on the bright side, we're adjusting to the cold. I almost don't want to give in so early in the winter.

Tom's about to run to the net bar, so I'll give this to him to post. Hope things are good at home. We'll try not to go so long between updates next time - but we're busy with fun things, so if we do, take it as a good sign.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Happy Belated Halloween

A post written a few days ago by Lisa. An update will be coming soon.

Happy Halloween from Harbin!

Unfortunately, no one celebrates Halloween here, except for the clubs who cater to foreigners - and they celebrate it just like any other bar or club in America. No thanks. In keeping with tradition, however, Tom and I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of sour Skittles, a bag of M&Ms, and a Snickers bar. They're much smaller than in America - go figure!

I actually had a cute discussion with Kyla via text messaging about Halloween, which was so illuminating that I shall type it up for you to read:

Kyla: Thursday is All Saints' Day!

Lisa: Oh, it is! How do you know that? And what do you know about it?

Kyla: I found it when I was surfing the web. Plus my Canadian friend has told me before. I guess on that day people wear strange clothes and masks. Like ghosts.

Lisa: No, that's Halloween, which is tomorrow. Everybody dresses up in costumes and at night the kids go "trick or treating," which means they go to all the neighbor houses and ask for candy. All Saints' Day is Thursday, but it's a church holiday and no one celebrates it. Thursday is also "Reformation Day," another church holiday. Too much information? :)

Kyla: Sounds interesting! I will go to your home to ask for candy Ho Ho (@^@) [I wanted to say, no, silly, that's Christmas! But I didn't.]

Lisa: Okay, but we won't give you any if you're not wearing a costume :)

I must say today was a good day. One point of note is that we had very positive interactions with virtually every salesperson we came in contact with, which is unusual as business transactions in Chinese culture always seem very rude to foreigners. One of the food vendors was extraordinarily kind - often, Chinese people assume that foreigners can't speak Chinese, so they grunt and point even when you speak Chinese to them - and even the grumpy lady who sells snacks and drinks was polite today. I suppose it would seem strange that people being polite would make my day, but it really does.

Another exciting thing is that I woke up to my phone ringing (actually, I thought it was my alarm and groggily shut it off, whoops) - I got a call from an English school who offered me a job! I am meeting with Ralph, the Chinese guy who runs the school, on Friday, and if everything works out I'll be teaching middle and high schoolers English three hours a week. Hurray! I hope this doesn't mean I have to buy work clothes.

We're supposed to have many, many CouchSurfers this week - four, to be precise: two Australians and two Spaniards. We've cleaned house and made up beds, but even though the Aussies were supposed to call us this morning, we haven't heard from them yet. We shall see.

Despite the recent happiness, today was also a sad day because our friends left this morning for Yunnan. And we got our grades back for our reading class midterm - everybody did terribly. I got a C- and probably was one of the higher scorers in the class. Most frustrating was that (aside from the fact that the teacher scored our answers somewhat arbitrarily) not only did the essays have words we didn't know in them, which we all agree is fair game for a reading class, the questions did too - words that we've never studied and were not in the essay! The whole class erupted about that one.

Next weekend is a "Chinese competition," which means the class picks representatives to compete in speech, singing, and trivia competitions. My family will not be surprised to hear that I got picked for the trivia section, so now I have to memorize 100 trivia questions and their answers about Chinese culture and history (not hard) in Chinese (extremely hard!). Also, it just so happens that, because of the way the school split up the class levels, we, level D, will be competing against levels E, F, and G. We have no hope! So at least I hope we won't be embarrassed. And to think I was going to volunteer to paint "Go D6!" signs! Aiya.

Anyway, I have my work cut out for me, so I better go to it! Until soon!