Intro to Chinese

Monday, July 31, 2006

We are Moving

I thought my departure from China six weeks ago would spell the end for one of my favorite passtimes--blogging.
I didn't feel like I could or should carry on with a name like Intro to Chinese and nothing especially novel to write about.
But I am still here and have been inspired to stay very much a member of this Blogosphere. Follow me to where I can tell you about my recent inspiration and my upcoming plans to move to the Galapagos Islands.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Conclusion to Chinese

Dear China,

We both knew this day would come. Tonight, I’m leaving with a one-way ticket on a westbound plane. Don’t know when I’ll be back again.

I am not exactly ready to close the China chapter of my life, so no doubt you will see more of me. Soon. My money says I will beat that Olympic flame to Beijing.

Late this morning, on my way home from my last exam, I watched you like a nostalgic slideshow--- coasting on my bicycle with music in my ears drinking you in one last time. (In the back of my mind, I prayed your crazy motorists wouldn’t take my life on my final day here.)

We really did have good times. I feel like I was just getting to know you and your people…and that multi-toned language of yours. Whew! I sure did have fun pretending to understand that.

Special shout out, of course, to your food; “Gan bian yun dou” will be missed. As will your various forms of sweet potato (which will now be dubbed digua in my vocabulary): baked, dried, and caramelized.

I am going to miss all the familiar faces and smiles of those I see daily but can’t communicate with, like the little boy with the thick, green, glasses. I’ve been seeing him every day on my morning ride to work. He rides backwards on his Mom’s electric bike and points his tiny silver, plastic gun at imaginary bad guys. On the first day we met, I was sitting on my bike directly behind him at a red light and caught him with his gun pointed directly at me. I threw my hands up, “Don’t shoot!”
Since that day, I have sat facing him at many red lights, many days in a row. And when I was swallowed into the mob of bicycles, and I could see him up ahead looking for me in the crowd. This morning, I wished I could tell him not to look for me after today, that he wouldn’t see me anymore. I wanted to tell him that he was the highlight of my morning.

Well, its time to go now. Intro to Chinese has come to an end, but I can leave with the peace of mind that there will be more Chinese courses in my future.

Thanks again,


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Changing lanes

“Man zou” is a Chinese expression that I have grown very fond of hearing. It means, “walk slowly” and every time I am told “man zou” as I exit a store or restaurant, I smile because a complete stranger cares enough to remind me to stop and smell the roses. At least that’s how it feels. I wonder if a non-native English speaker feels touched when told, “take it easy”?

In the days after I was told what “man zou” meant, I took it very literally. As soon as I heard the words, I would make a conscious effort to slow myself down in view of the adviser. As I drifted quietly up the sidewalk for a hundred yards, I looked tenderly upon my surroundings. And in those meandering moments, I would imagine a more peaceful version of myself doing everything more slowly…walking, eating, drinking, and cooking---all in sweet slow motion.

Then, to my disappointment, only a couple of hours later, I would find myself at home trying to put on my pajamas, take out my contacts and brush my teeth all at once.

Whose idea was this so-called “multitasking” anyway? I’ll tell you what multitasking has gotten me: burnt lentil soup, overflowing bathtubs, and toothpaste on the keyboard. It’s hard to think of anything especially positive in my life that has sprung from the ability to multitask. What’s the big hurry? In fact, as I recall, one of the most beautiful days I’ve spent in China was the day after a bout of food poisoning in Lijiang. After hours in the bathroom, I emerged out into the city feeling very fragile and wandered around at a snail’s pace. That evening, I remember thinking I was glad I’d been sick; otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the time to see the city so clearly and find, in the smallest of details, such serenity.

When in a hurry around here, it’s hard to see beyond bad traffic, crowded buses and the sheer frustration of a language barrier; it takes a long hard look to find the beauty. But, sure enough, when you slow down, there it is… bare-bottomed babies wading in a fountain, a fruit vendor and her basket of ripe red cherries or a Chinese dog in a stylish sweater.

I am trying to change my ways and not only slow down, but focus on each individual task until it is completed. So far monotasking is proving difficult; I routinely catch myself wandering off to check my email in the midst of scrambling eggs or trying to floss with a mouth full of foamy toothpaste.

So, thank you, China, for reminding me, in your novel way, to be here while I am here.

Man zou, dear reader.

Monday, June 05, 2006

One way or another...

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sleep at last

The past month’s hot weather has brought us unwelcome houseguests. No, not the family. The mosquitoes. Every night before bed, Josh closes himself into the bedroom and goes mosquito hunting. It just so happens that all the doors in our apartment have small windows like laboratories or…an insane asylum--windows through which one can observe a subject. As I brush my teeth I stand out in the hall and observe Josh. He holds completely still in the corner of the room, his eyes pass slowly over the walls and ceiling.

Without warning, he begins to stalk across the room with his fingers wrapped around the handle of a fluorescent orange fly swatter. In a sudden fury, he leaps across the bed and SMACK! Then, he pauses for just a moment before slowly peeling the swatter off the wall to reveal a dime-sized explosion of bright red blood and splattered mosquito parts. This ritual goes on for ten to fifteen minutes.

And most nights do not pass without one or two midnight hunts........I hear a faint buzz, and then I feel a pillow placed on top of my face. A moment later, through my eyelids and the pillow, I can sense the light has come on. I peak out from between the pillow sandwich and see Josh sitting pretzel style on the bed, eyes roaming around the room looking for prey.

Last night at 3am, Josh had had enough. The room was hot, our hands and knees were itchy, and Josh had a long day of work ahead of him.

“Can you get up? I am going to set up the tent.” I could hear the exasperation in his voice.

I stood by the bed squinting and sleepy as he pulled the sheets off the bed and set up the tent in less than four minutes.

Once we settled into the tent, Josh wiggled around on the sheets and made little happy noises like a kid with a Ninja Turtles tent set up on his bed---only now the tent is REI.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Dealing with the heat

Hot weather has brought about a change of scenery around here. Women carry parasols to escape the sunshine and the men, desperate for some ventilation in a shorts-less land, roll up their pants and shirts to bare calves and midriffs.

Last week, my classes met at a nearby sports-field and played (sort of) Kickball. It was a lot of fun. Though some students opted out for fear of what color sun exposure might turn their skin, another group of students, who are often quiet in the classroom, really pushed their own boundaries to communicate with me about the rules of the game.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Getting to Hangzhou

In the Shanghai train station, I prepared the family for the train boarding madness. I had to coach my Mom in particular; “Don’t be nice” I told her, “look out for number one---that’s you.” We were at a slight disadvantage with four large suitcases, which some men in blue shirts may or may not have been trying to help us check. I was reluctant to let go of the luggage because I didn’t understand what they were telling me. I informed the family of my lack of understanding and they agreed it was better not to risk the nightmare of losing our bargain-price souvenirs and knock-off designer bags acquired in Shanghai.

We stood with a growing crowd between two long aisles of chairs, feet planted and ready to push through with the crowd once boarding began. Our seats were assigned; urgency lay in the need to find overhead space for the luggage.
If it sounds to you like we were being pushy, you are correct.

Waiting in a line to board would mean that all the passengers would have to have some faith in each other’s commitment to such line. But because we-the-mob can’t be sure everyone will commit, we-the-mob decide to pass through the turn-style as the mob. Perhaps, observed from above, we look like little molecules trying to escape through the neck of a bottle, all pushing on each other until one bursts through and then another and then another. The harder we push on those around us, the sooner it will be our turn to burst through the opening.

Once boarding began, we each fought our tendency to give way and pushed. With great success, we were among the first on the train. After stowing our bags, we took our seats and set up our little picnic of snacks. We watched as the train filled up, pleased that we could avoid the ensuing congestion. Several minutes later, a group of passengers paused near our seats. They looked from their tickets to the seat numbers to us and back to the tickets. I produced one of our tickets and a helpful onlooker gestured to the stairs, pointing out the little character on my ticket that meant we were “up”.

We gathered our snacks and guidebooks, went upstairs, floundered through a trade negotiation so that we could all sit together, took our new seats, and began to unpack again. Just as we began munching on crackers, another man appeared looking pretty confident that I was in his seat. I was slightly confused and completely arrested by my inability to explain that I had traded for this seat with a man who was now drifting off to sleep in my original seat.

I gave the seat to its actual ticket holder, stood up and leaned against the side of Jake’s seat. Not 30 seconds passed before the man who was drifting off jumped up and gestured that I take his seat (my original seat), most probably explaining that he actually had a standing room only ticket. And not 10 seconds after I sat down across the aisle from the family, the man now sitting with them offered to trade with me. At last, I was seated back with the family and the snacks.

Any amount of musical chairs would have been worth it. Just look at the place. You can see why the Chinese call Hangzhou “Heaven on Earth”.

Dragon Boat Festival

Yesterday (5/31/06) was the Dragon Boat Festival--one of the four big festivals in China.
The night before, one of Josh's students came by the apartment bearing weeds and glutinous rice. He instructed us to hang the weeds on our door to protect ourselves from evil and disease for the rest of the year.

Weeds on door: check.

He also handed over bag full of sticky rice dumplings and said, "Eat these tomorrow".
I found out that a Chinese poet, Chu Yuan, drowned in 277 B.C. and after his death, citizens threw sticky rice into the water so the fish would eat the rice instead of the drowned poet. Nowadays, the rice is eaten by the people themselves.
We steamed a couple and ate them right up. The purple one had dates and peanuts inside. Pretty tastey.

Last night, I was on my way to bed when my dad called, "You didn't eat any sticky rice dumplings today, did you Bets?"

"As a matter of fact I did, Dad. How did you know about the sticky rice?"

"Because I just read an article entitled, China warns of poisonous Dragon Boat dumplings."