Friday, December 05, 2008

Of Shopping And Shuang Pi Nai

After finishing up my responsibilities at Jinan University, it was time to head out into Guangzhou city. On tap? Probably the two things we do best here in and eat!

Thanks to Li Ying and, of course, Professor Bai, we succeeded dramatically on both fronts. Julie, for her part, scored essentially an entire winter wardrobe. And that's Z, trying to play tricks on passersby, while dressed in his new Pepsi track suit. (Yes, Pepsi is a chain clothing store on this side of the Pacific. How Desi resisted, I'll never know...)

One Guangdong treat I was looking forward to is shuang pi nai. This snack food, which came highly recommended by my Beida students, literally translates as "double skin milk." Desi gave the following description..."It's like tapioca pudding without the tapioca." All I can say, once again, is hao chi (good eats)!

And, once again, thanks to the good folks of Jinan. We'll be seein' ya...


The Five Senses of China

Part I: Smell

As you might imagine, China abounds with smells, both familiar and unrecognizable. Walk down the 85 steps of your apartment around 11 am and you'll want to knock on every door to see what's cooking. Stroll into an alley neighborhood and around every 200 meters you'll know you're approaching the public toilet. Sparing the details, you'll be glad computers can't store and reproduce odors...yet.

One of the best smells and one of the worst smells that my olfactory system has ever experienced occurred right here in Guangzhou. So that I can end on a positive note. I'll start with the latter.

Back in '04, we took a day trip to Guangzhou from Taishan, with the Kangs and their crew. After a day of touring Shamian Island and shopping on Beijing Lu, we headed to the train station to wait for our ride. I have no idea what it was, and probably do not want to know, but the stench that filled the air made all of us gag. Plain and simply, it was vile. From what we could hypothesize, the smell was most likely from some type of meat market or a factory where animal products are processed. While we are usually happy to visit places we've already been, we're in no rush to return there!

Oh, the sweet smell of spring amid winter's gloom. Actually, it's not quite winter yet, but spending a few days in southern China provides a respite from the chill of Beijing and also a delight to the nose. On the campus of Jinan University, there are trees, the likes of which I've never seen. Apparently indigenous only to this part of China, they are in full bloom, with beautiful fuchsia-colored flowers whose fragrance fills the air with the aroma of May and whose falling petals drift to the Earth like a purple snowstorm. A true feast for the nasal passages.


Thursday, December 04, 2008

We Like Walking In The Alleys Behind Main Streets

While walking down a main shopping thoroughfare here in Guangzhou, Desi spied an alleyway that looked kind of dark, dirty, and narrow. Just our kind of place! When given the option of strolling along a straight, wide dajie or sneaking into a mysterious looking labyrinth, our policy is to always choose the latter.

Our reward? DVDs for as cheap as yi kuai (about 15 cents). Socks for ershijiu kuai (about four dollars...too much).

And all of this took place in the few feet of space that exists between this series of tall buildings. It was at once totally predictable, yet in a different way completely unexpected. A real confirmation of our "alleyways are better" strategy...


Questions I'll Answer

Well, I'm here in Guangzhou at Jinan University, in the midst of a two-day visit to the Management School. Once again, an incredibly warm welcome...complete with a "life-sized" banner.

And once again, it is the students who are stealing the show...This time with their unintentionally direct questions.

Bu now, I've become accustomed to being asked, at the close of my lectures, who I voted for in the presidential election. After I finished answering today, my host professor spoke up, in effect apologizing for the fact that I had to speak publicly to an issue that is normally treated as private in the United States. (Later on, the student who posed the question reiterated the apology, noting that she had no idea such information might be considered a personal matter.)

My response? Mei shier. No problem. I am happy to answer the question. And more to the point...This is why I'm here...To hopefully, in small ways, foster understanding across American and Chinese cultures. In this particular instance, I was the teacher. But, in many others, it is I who is the learner.

And then came another question...

What is your opinion about abortion?

I answered that one, too. In a year of many firsts, that was certainly an unexpected (but not unwelcome) new experience...


So, What On Earth Is It?

Here's the latest installment in our periodic contest...



While we are definitely into our lives as Beijingren, when an opportunity arose for Steve to give a lecture in Guangzhou, we couldn't have been any happier. Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital, holds a special place in our xin because it is the region where we first fell in love...with China. When we had chance to come to China in 2004 with the Kangs, it never occurred to us that a trip could plant the seed for a whole life direction. Sure, it would be a "trip of a lifetime," but a trip that would change our lives? There is no doubt that '04's effects have been far reaching.

Guangzhou, formally known as Canton, is located in southern China. Around four hours from Hong Kong by bus, it is a bustling city of around 10 million people and has a climate that is subtropical. It is the place from which many of the people who emigrated to other countries and set up Chinatowns hail from.

The main reason that a trip to Guangzhou is so meaningful to us is that it brings us just a stone's throw from the place we consider our Zhongguo laojia (Chinese homeland)...Taishan. With only a small distance between us and this "tiny" district of one million people, we will make our "pilgrimage" back, if only for a day or so.

When you spend almost a month in a place, you can form an indelible image in your mind. For me, to venture back to the Taishan Overseas Chinese Hotel, the basketball courts where Steve introduced "shirts and skins" to the Chinese, to "Cloud Nine" (our favorite gongfu cha place in the world), and, of course, Taishan #1 Middle School, will be one of the highlights of this entire year abroad. I can't wait to see how it has changed and maybe even to see a few of the nameless faces we encountered and seemed to amaze with our foreign look. Perhaps we can even show a few of them that while our foreign look has remained the same (or at least close to it), our Chinese vocabulary is actually made up of a few more words than ni hao and zaijian. (Both of which we used to pronounce wrong!)

Laojia, sweet laojia.


To Convert Or Not To Convert?...That Is The Question

Don't worry, Fr. Mike and Fr. Greg...While living in the religious minority does pose some significant challenges, spiritually we're good to go...

The conversion I'm referring to here is actually quite scientific...I'm talking temperature.

During the summer, Beijing is predictably hot. No need to check the forecast...Just throw on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and you're all set. A quick glance out the window to see if it's sunny or rainy is all you need. Yet with the fluctuating temperatures of fall and early winter, a bit more attention to the thermometer is in order. Only snag? Of course, in the land of metrics, Celsius is the unit of choice.

At first, I was trying to convert to Fahrenheit, but when Steve made the blanket statement that he was not going to convert, suggesting that it would be a fun side project, and stating that he was "much more likely to become fluent in Celsius this year than Chinese," I decided to jump on board.

This mind-body connection poses a unique challenge. In the beginning, it was very difficult. I would take a peek at Beijing weather on the Internet and step onto the balcony for a physical "read." At that time, the stakes were low, since early fall is quite temperate. An extra sweater or a missing jacket was really no big deal.

Since I've been working on this for a while now, I've been able to fine tune my "readings" a bit. After making many a mental note, like..."Today it's 17 degrees Celsius and feels really nice out."...or..."Two degrees Celsius is really chilly...better put on the those long johns."...I feel confident on most days that I can successfully outfit myself. Now if only learning Chinese was that easy.


PS: Yes, I have had to "cheat" once in a while. For example, when preparing for a trip to southern China, we checked Beijing weather and it said the temperature would be around 20-25 degrees Celsius. While I know that this is in the mild range, I wasn't sure if that meant 70s or 80s (which would definitely affect our packing). When in doubt, multiply by 1.8 and add 32.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Jingshan Gongyuan, The Park

All around "Coal Hill" (as it is translated in English), is one of those delightful Beijing parks. You've heard the story before...people dancing, playing erhu, and singing revolutionary anthems. Really just a "glad to be alive" kind of place.

And then we came upon something "new"...jump roping. There were a nai nai and an ayi, turning this huge rope, surrounded by a nice crowd. One by one, people took turns...

There was the woman in the track suit, who made it look so effortless.

There were the ayis who tumbled onto the concrete, and then popped right back up, apparently no worse for wear.

There were the kids who had the hardest time figuring out when to jump in without having the rope come crashing down on them.

And then there was Z and me...


A Wonderful World

This is a poem that was published in Bisskit, our student newspaper...

Over a mountain, far away,
Sits a home so dear to me,
A home I left for adventure and fun,
To see a place outside my world.

The place I found was more than fun,
It was a land full of places to explore.
A land much larger than my home,
With just as many pleasures to enjoy.

A land with crowds and peace all at once,
A land with foods like nowhere else,
A land with walls for hikes and bikes,
A land with people so generous and nice.

A world full of adventure is what I found,
Like nowhere else, the whole world 'round.
And nowhere else would I rather be,
Than right here in Beijing, on this beautiful,
sunny day!


Jingshan Gongyuan, The Hill

As we made our way up the side of the hill, Desi made a remark that summed it all up...

Don't lose sight of the fact that the dirt we are walking on is from the moat of the Forbidden City.

Yes, the Forbidden City has a moat that runs all the way around its 9999 rooms and [some large number] hectares. All that dirt had to go somewhere...Why not dump it in a big pile (well, it's really more than a pile...) across the street?

The end result is a 360-degree view of the city that is really quite spectacular (not that pictures can do it any justice...another byproduct of all of that particulate matter in the air).

Just another vivid example of the people power that has fueled China for all of these centuries...


Sunday, November 30, 2008

On The Importance Of Parish Community

As the Advent season begins, I'm thinking a lot these days about some things I normally take for granted. Take for granted, that is, in a good way. For example...

All of those familiar people sitting in the church pews around us.

All of those ordinary, yet special rituals, like choir performances and penance services.

It is this repetition of people and rituals that, in the end, defines a parish community. And it is this sense of community that we are definitely lacking in this phase of our lives.

Now, before I comment any further, a disclaimer, or even an apology, is in order. You see, if we would have placed a high enough priority on joining a parish when we first arrived in China, we could have easily made that happen months ago. We could, by now, be active members of a Beijing Catholic community, no matter how far away the churches are or how otherwise inconvenient Christian worship is in this largely secular society. And we, of course, will be here long enough that we may still decide to lay down some religious roots in our "home away from home."

For now, though, we have chosen a path that is not all that unlike our churchgoing when we first moved to Silver Spring in 1995. Back then, we were "free lance" Catholics, going from church to church, depending on things like time and location.

In one sense, this state of affairs has the potential to make us stronger in faith, both as individuals and as a family. Each one of us has to rely on ourselves and one another to stay devoted in prayer and action. These little reminders and efforts are beautiful, no doubt, when they happen.

And then there are those instances when, just by being in church, we naturally attract the attention of those worshiping around us. Like today, when an elderly gentleman sitting in the pew in front of us turned around and gave us a small booklet. Honestly, I have no idea what the pamphlet is about. Is it a prayer book? Is it an Advent meditation guide? No matter...It was the sense of connection that transcended cultural and language barriers that was important at that moment.

In this year of being away from our home parish, it is little encounters like this that remind us of just how central the communion aspect is in our, and any, religious faith.


In Season

As I wander through some of the malls and markets in Beijing, one huge difference between Chinese and American shopping becomes apparent. While everyone back home is looking at the latest in spring attire and, dare I say, swim suits, in China I am perusing the racks of long johns, puffy coats, hats, gloves, and scarves. In essence, everything winter. In China, shopping is done on a seasonal basis...the season you're in. Try to find a coat at Montgomery Wall or Woodbridge Center and they've been picked over like buffalo chicken wings. Walk into any shopping establishment in Beijing and the selection is plentiful. Now that's what I call practical...