Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ayis: China's Best Kept Secret

Everywhere you go in China, there are women, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 55, who are responsible for a wide range of jobs that influence Chinese living. In fact, I believe that they actually run China, for without these "aunties," nothing would go smoothly.

For example, there are the "public bus" ayis. These women keep all the passengers in line. They sell tickets and make sure that everyone knows which stop is next (sometimes in quite unmelodious fashion). They are some of the most observant people I've ever seen. Even in the crowded te liu lu, they can spot someone who hasn't paid their fare. You can run, but you can't hide from ayi.

Next, the "school bus" ayi. Julie and Z's ayi is top notch. She is responsible for getting the kids on and off the bus, keeping them comfortable and in control, and sometimes even yelling at passing motorists who sideswipe the bus or explaining to police that the bus is allowed to be on the road despite the fact that its license plate is one that is restricted on that day. Never a dull moment for ayi.

Then there's the "child rearing" ayi. Throughout the neighborhood are women who push baby carriages, play with toddlers, or gather with other ayis in parks or public spaces to allow the children, both Chinese and foreign, to play with each other. They carefully attend to the needs of the children, keeping them dressed appropriately for the weather or, in the case of tiny tots, helping them take care of "business" every thirty minutes or so. No diaper duty for ayi.

Finally, there is the "housekeeper" ayi. For an unbelievably reasonable amount of qian, you can hire an ayi to cook, clean, and shop for you. In some cases, they'll even live with you. They will help you learn Chinese and school you in Chinese culture, as well as make sure that you are appropriately dressed to face the elements. We'd all freeze to death without ayi!

The most opinionated, caring, hardest working in China, hands down (or out the window, in some cases!).


Yonghegong Lama Temple

I'm not normally impressed by the information signs at Chinese tourist signs. They follow a predictable pattern...

The [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite site] was first built in [pick some year really, really a long time before George Washington]. It was built during the [usually Ming or Qing] dynasty by [somebody like Emperor Qianlong]. The site consists of [a big number] hectares of land and [if we are talking about the Forbidden City, 9999] buildings.

In other words, lots of time and space details, but not much in the way of anything that gives you insight into anything other than the fact that China has had "five thousand years of glorious history."

Recently, however, one such sign actually caught and sustained my interest. Desi and I came upon this sign during a recent visit to the Lama Temple (during one of the kids' play rehearsals). It reads as follows...

It was built in 1748-1750 A.D.
The Maitreya Buddha is standing inside. The statue (eighteen metres above the ground and eight metres below the ground) was carved from a single trunk of white sandal wood.
In august 1990 A.D. this Buddha was in Guinness Book of records.

Yes, this was during the reign of Qianlong. And yes, they are talking about the Guinness Book...ayou!

But take a second look. Yes, the piece of sandalwood is something like 80 feet long (if I'm reading the sign and doing my conversion correctly). Apparently, it took the Dalai Lama three years to ship the piece from Nepal to Beijing. They then had to construct a hall around the wood as they carved it into a statue. And burying part of the sandalwood for stability turned out to be very prescient, as today the Beijing subway passes directly beneath Yonghegong. You would hate to be a visitor in the future, coming to the ruins of the Maitreya Buddha and reading a sign like this (another one of my favorites, paraphrased from the front entrance of Yuanmingyuan)...

Unfortunately, this "wonder of civilization" was toppled to the ground by Lines 2 and 5 in the year 2069.


This Is A Test...

This is a TEST! A true test of our abilities. Can Julie and I be actors?

It all started when there was an e-bulletin about a play. Julie decided to try out. I was thinking about it. Our drama teacher told my sister to get me to try out. So I did try out.

The play is about a girl who is in a dream about taking a test. In her dream she knew none of the answers and weird things were happening to her.

I was given the role of "Pat," the nerd of the class. Julie was the lead actor's thoughts. We both had a few lines and had to do a lot of movements. We practiced like crazy! As we continued to practice, I watched it come together.

Finally, it came. The night of the play. We put on our costumes and got our makeup on. We waited offstage. We saw about 100 people there. We came out.

As the play went on, my lines were...

"May I have another blue book please?"

"May I have two more blue books please?"

"Ning chok fen sheng kik."
(The lead actor was dreaming in fake Chinese.)

Other than that, I made my movements and enjoyed myself. The play went by really fast!


Friday, November 28, 2008

Lunchtime Lessons

Today I had the pleasure of sharing wufan with Steve and his six students. It was a true delight to meet these extraordinary young men and women and hear about their diverse backgrounds in a true cultural exchange.

In a very comfortable setting (over food, of course) they felt compelled to ask Steve and me about our "love story." They noticeably enjoyed hearing about out extensive history, our experiences, and about how we came to love China. In addition, discussions about American foods and how Americans celebrate holidays verses how Chinese people do so enlightened both "sides."

Perhaps the most interesting information to me, though, emerged when I asked them about their experiences in high school. As a high school teacher, I am naturally driven to hear the comparisons. All I can say is that the Chinese never cease to amaze me...

One student explained how she would get to school on most days at 6:00 am. (Next time I hear my students complaining about the 7:25 am late bell, I think you know what I'll be telling them.) She would work until lunchtime around 11:30 am and then take a break. While the details about the afternoon still need to be filled in, the bottom line was that she ate dinner at school and finished up at 9:00 pm. (You read that right.)

Needless to say, I was astounded by this as well as by finding that all this work was to prepare for a single life-determining test. Students who scored the best at their school or in their province were able to go to the best universities. While this sounds very positive, the added feature really surprised me. Not only does the test determine your school, it also determines your major. You may want to go to the business school at your university but if your scores don't align with that path, you will be placed in another program of study. If you want to change your major, it is very difficult. Apparently, to make a change, you need to take another extremely challenging exam. All I could think and say was how much different this is from higher education in the US. I told them about how it works in America and they were equally astounded.

Exchanging stories, ideas, and viewpoints is so critical to developing a contextual understanding of other cultures. Throughout the meal I found myself saying, "Wow," and thinking, "I can't wait to share this information with my students back home...maybe this will inspire them to view their education a bit more favorably." (Or at least do a little homework once in a while!)


Thursday, November 27, 2008

We Can Show You...And We Don't Even Have To Kill You!

This has been "Embassy Week" here in the Balla household. I spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday working with government officials and professors from both China and the United States on a Fulbright-related project. It has definitely been interesting to see how the program works from the "other side." I really have a new appreciation for just how much goes into moving a family of Americans half way around the world. I've been saying, in the abstract, how nice it is to have the support and resources of the United States government behind us. After this week, I can make this claim in a more tangible way than ever.

And it's not just because of the way we stuffed our faces last night at the Embassy Thanksgiving feast (although that we certainly did!). It's the meeting, in both professional and personal settings, others who want to travel the world, learn about far away places (and themselves!), and perhaps (in small ways) foster mutual understanding among cultures, societies, and political systems.

In addition to being thankful for our families and friends, we do have a lot to be thankful for as Americans...God Bless America!


Five Appliances You Won't Find In A Chinese Household

(1) Clothes dryer

(2) Dish washer

(3) Central air conditioning

(4) Vacuum cleaner

(5) Oven (I'm thinking that this may be why there's no Thanksgiving in China.)

So now you may be thinking, "How does one cook Thanksgiving dinner without an oven?"

One doesn't...One eats a scrumptious dinner provided by the US Embassy for Fulbrighters and their families on Wednesday night and, in our case, hot pot on Thanksgiving night. You order some chicken...some lamb...close enough for this year, since turkey is scarce on Chinese menus.

Did we miss Grampy's turkey, stuffing, and all the trimmings, and Grandma's potatoes, sweet potatoes, and turnips? Of course we did. But part of this trip is for new experiences and part for realizing and developing a new appreciation for all the blessings we have back home. Isn't that what Thanksgiving is all about?


Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Yes, it's that time of year, folks. it?

Today is Thanksgiving. Not here in Beijing, though. Everywhere, guess what you see. Here is a hint. This country is not Catholic. Why would there be any sign of Christmas?

Well, that is all you see nowadays. Christmas trees, Santa Claus signs, and ornaments. Strange. I thought there would be no Christmas here in China.

I was expecting a small Christmas dinner at home, but not even a tree!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I mean...ahh...oh...Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How Did Your Kids Get To School Today?


Partying Like It's 1989...Or Hubei Province, Mountain Momma

One of my handlers in Wuhan, Mr. Li (do you know him?), suggested we might go to a bar one night during my visit. Sure...why not? So long as I avoid the dreaded baijiu, it should be a good time.

(We stuck to Budweiser...served warm...with ice cubes...)

Stepping into Fucui Club, I was immediately transported back in time. It was like that club in Piscataway we went to during our college years. (What was the name of that place, Sharon?) Tables everywhere. Elaborate lighting system, complete with strobe effects. A few small stages.

The stages were used by the club's staff. Every now and then, one of them would jump up on a stage and do some singing or dancing. One guy did some hip-hop rapping. The words were Chinese, but the moves were definitely American.

My favorites were these three dancers who were dressed in these kind of track suits, with those long gloves that Madonna used to wear. (What was the name of that movie?)

One particularly enthusiastic guy came up to me and asked, "Can you speak English?" (Now there's a question I don't usually get.) When I answered hui "("Yes, I can."), he seemed very impressed. Not by the fact that I answered in Chinese, but that I could speak English.

And then there was the highlight of the evening. Much of the music being mixed consisted of old American songs, reset to techno dance beats. There was "Shout" by Tears For Fears. "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees. And my favorite..."Country Road." So there I was, my arm around Wang Ping (another one of my handlers), singing this old American classic in a room full of young Chinese people. Just when I thought I had this place all figured out...

And we were not even done yet. After many ganbeis, we headed out, presumably to drive back to my hotel. Wrong again. Well after midnight, we pulled up to this nondescript-looking place. Wang Ping announced that we were going for some "health care for our feet." Sure enough, there we were, a few minutes later, in a private room, getting our feet washed and massaged.

No...really...I am not making this up...