Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Presents

Z: What were you expecting to get from Santa, if anything at all?

Julie: I had no idea! I did not know what to expect. I was completely surprised.

Z: Were you surprised to see presents?

Julie: I wasn't sure beforehand. Maybe I would have been surprised if there were no presents under our tree.

Z: What was your favorite present?

Julie: I love all the presents we got. Probably some of my favorites were the purse and wallet I had been wanting for weeks, plus the shard box. The shard box is a tin box that has for its top a piece of antique porcelain that was smashed during the Cultural Revolution.

Z: What do you think was Santa's theme for this year?

Julie: Definitely China!

Z: What were some of the other things you got?

Julie: I also got...

Olympic things
A China doll
A Chinese jacket
Pucca slippers
A pearl and rose quartz necklace

Z: Do you think Santa did well in getting you the perfect things?

Julie: Dangran! (Of course!) I won't have to spend another cent in China!

~Zoli and Julie

Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning Parties

Julie: What was the plan for our Christmas Eve party?

Z: Our plan was to have a snack table set up, with everything we had bought and received for Christmas. We were going to watch "Norad tracks Santa" and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, if we could.

Julie: How did you set up the food and snack table?

Z: I put the major foods on the back of the snack table and the small foods in the front. I also scattered pieces of chocolate around the table. I placed a light behind the table so everyone could see the foods. Since the table wasn't big enough for all of the food, I put the chicken and cheese on a chair next to the table.

Julie: What were the main activities we did last night?

Z: We ate, watched Norad, and watched part of Rudolph. We also put out food for the reindeer.

Julie: What is Norad?

Z: "Norad tracks Santa" is a website that tracks Santa as he delivers presents around the world. There are sometimes satellite videos of Santa or pictures of the places where he has gone.

Julie: What did we do on Christmas morning?

Z: We opened presents, ate bacon and pancakes (courtesy of Mommy!), watched Santa, and rested!

Julie: What have our sleeping arrangements been the last few nights?

Z: We have all slept in Mommy and Daddy's room, us on the fold-out couch and Mommy and Daddy on their bed.

Julie: Did you have a fun time?

Z: Yes, I did! I got to do more preparing than I normally do. Plus, we got to have Santa come to us way before anybody else!

~Julie and Zoli

These Are Our Fellow Christians

Accidentally, as things often seem to happen here, we showed up for Christmas Eve Mass two hours early. Lucky break! After trolling up and down the aisle for a minute or two, we ended up scoring the last group of four seats with an unobstructed view of the altar. Yes, you heard that right...If we had shown up just moments later, we would have been staring at a column rather than the celebrant.

So how did we occupy our time while waiting for the service to begin? Isn't two hours an awfully long time to sit in a pew?

Actually, there was so much going on that the two hours kind of flew by...

The search for seats. Well after every seat had been filled, and people were were crammed into every inch of space in the back and on the sides of the church, new arrivals continued to wander and up down the main aisle, looking for seats. I did witness one touching moment, when an elderly woman with a cane was escorted in by one of the volunteers. The volunteer asked a young woman sitting on the aisle to give up her seat. This she did, without any sign of discontent whatsoever. I mean, she had scoped out one of the prime seats in the entire cathedral, and then was relegated to standing on the side in the midst of the ever-growing throng. Wow!

Translation time. When the program for the service came out, I went back and grabbed a pair. Now, these programs were, of course, all in Chinese (why should it be any other way?). This gave Julie and I an excuse to spend some time translating the Gospel. By the time we were done, we knew that it was a passage that ended with the birth of Christ, as opposed to a reading that chronicled the manger scene and subsequent events. Along the way, we identified a number of other words that are commonly used during the Mass. All of this helped to bring us closer to the liturgy. Right, Julie?

The Rosary lady. About 45 minutes before Mass began, I started to hear a murmur of what sounded like chanting. Listening in, I quickly realized that it was a collective saying of the Rosary starting up. Looking around, I spotted an older women standing in the center aisle, up near the front, leading the prayer. Alerting the rest of the crew, we joined in for what was a really nice experience. (During the prayer, I couldn't help but notice that the Hail Mary takes much longer to say in Chinese, while the Glory Be is way, way faster.)

The angels. Chinese Masses all seem to include a group of children who get dressed up as angels and process in with the priests, altar servers, and lay ministers. We had great fun watching the angels practice marching in and out, and then lining up in the center aisle right before Mass was to begin.

As for the Mass itself, it was beautiful. And definitely Chinese. What this means is that there is no line for communion. What happens is that as soon as the priest and the congregation proclaim..."This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper.."...As soon as these words are spoken, everyone in the congregation gets up and tries to make their way down the aisle. You are pushed, you are jostled, you are crowded. Eventually, though, you make it down to the front and get to have your own private moment with the priest and with the Lord Himself.



The Search For Santa

Ever since I was around one or two years old, I have been visiting Santa to get a picture taken. As a child, this was a priority for my dad...thanks Dad! I think this was because it provided a nice record of my growth and change and, more simply, a fun tradition.

I continued this tradition into my teen years, by stopping at the mall with some of my closest friends and then by persuading my boyfriend to join me. That boyfriend became my husband, and so the tradition continued...

Every year, since the kids were born, we have taken one Santa picture of Julie and Z and one picture of all of us. True to my dad's idea, these pictures have provided a great record of growth and change in all of us.

Knowing this year it might be tricky to pull off a Santa picture, I started working early to find a place. I thought that one of the western malls might be a prime location. A few "sources" led me in the direction of Chao Yang...a district where many waiguoren reside.

After a wild goose chase or two (which, by Beijing standards, constitute day trips), and the realization that mall design in China is much different than the US, as there are no center courts where Santa might have his photo stop, I thought we were out of luck. With the right attitude, Steve suggested that we improvise and take a picture with one of those "shaking hip" Santas that happened to be in a basement supermarket. Conceding that our search was probably over, we stood with "plastic Santa" and decided that we'd consider it part of the legend of our Chinese Christmas.

Step in Rick Reilly. With connections beyond my scope, Rick discovered a Santa available for photo ops! The Village Mall in Sanlitun was the place, so in a last ditch effort (2 pm on Christmas Eve), we headed across town to see Santa...with Chinese characteristics.

In an out of the way place (the basement, of course!), there he was, sitting in his chair (text messaging) and surrounded by two "helpers" and a photographer. They were all happy and excited to see us, and they took lots of pictures...some of which featured Santa in what I'd call "Eminem" poses. While all these pictures were taken totally for free, they had no printer to print them up. Apparently, they are going to e-mail them to us. In any case, we snapped a few of our own.

No doubt, we will always cherish these pictures. One, because they were difficult to come by. Two, because we were able to keep our tradition going. And three, because Chinese Santa rocks (and raps)!


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wishing You A Merry Christmas...

...with Chinese characteristics!

Love and God's blessings to all of you!

~Steve, Desi, Julie, and Zoli

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We're Bigger Than You And We're Comin' Through!

This was going to be a post where we talked about how comfortable bus travel is here in China, and how we love to spread out and claim the entire back row of the coaches we ride in. But then our trip from Chengde back to Beijing happened...

It started when the desk clerk at our hotel told us, when we were checking out, that we could go to this other hotel a couple of blocks away and catch a bus back to Beijing. "Cool," I thought. No need to head to the bus station out on the edge of town. We jumped into a cab for the, luckily, short trip. (I say "luckily" because the cab was of the, shall we say, smaller variety. With our luggage not all fitting into the trunk, I ended up with two backpacks on my lap. I know Desi and the kids were joined in the back seat by two pieces of our rolling luggage.)

I made sure I told the driver not only the name of our hotel destination, but also the reason we were going there. Good move, Steve! Turns out that we didn't really want to go to the hotel. Rather, we needed to be at a spot about half way down the block from the hotel. (Have we ever posted about the distinctly Chinese way of giving directions? Let's just say it often seems to involve a lot of words and even greater imprecision.)

Essentially, our target was this little piece of sidewalk between the hotel and a strip of stores. At this location, there was an old-fashioned looking bus (kind of like the ones you see in Africa, except that ours didn't have luggage or people on the roof). It was parked crooked, jutting a bit out onto the road.

The bus looked kind of crowded, so I asked the laoban (boss) if there were any seats. You, came the reply. After getting this confirmation, we climbed on board, to claim the last four seats (luckily, Julie and Z got to sit together), all while moving about under the smiling and watchful eyes of the mostly young, male passengers.

Then came the latest episode in the Balla family's language learning reality show. The laoban asked me a question that I didn't fully understand. The problem was that the key phrase in the sentence didn't make any sense, as I was understanding it. As I heard it, the phrase was gàosu, which means "to tell." I kept asking him, "What are you trying to tell me?" We got louder and louder, until it finally got all resolved, with the help of another passenger. (Who got involved when the laoban turned around and yelled out in Chinese, "Does anybody here speak English?") It turns out, the phrase in question was gāosù, which means "high speed." Now, these phrases may look to be identical, but notice the difference in the slash marks. These differences imply that the two phrases are said with totally different emphases in pronunciation. No, this language isn't difficult to learn!

So here's what the question boiled down to...If I agreed to pay 10 extra kuai per family member, the bus would take the new expressway, rather than the normal local roads. Apparently, everyone else had already agreed to this, so the pressure was on us. With our quick agreement, we were off to the expressway entrance.

Have you ever been in a bus that turned around on a dime? Well, we had that experience a few minutes later, when the bus arrived at the toll booth and was flagged away by an official-looking person in a long green coat (more on PLA coats in another post!). When I asked the passenger next to me why we were turning around, he said it was because xia xue le. In other words, it had snowed...three days before...about two inches...and the road was still closed.

So back to the local road we went...going the wrong way up the one-way access road. Lucky for us, we were bigger than any of the oncoming vehicles, so they had quite an incentive to get out of the way!

The local road made for quite an interesting, and sometimes harrowing, journey. With sub-freezing temperatures outside, the laoban and his trusty rag served as a human defroster. As we passed village after village, we saw roadside marketplaces, farmers herding goats up the road, and other obstacles that the shifu managed to avoid...with lots of swinging and swaying. Not surprisingly, one passenger in front of the kids barfed into a bag. Z, for his part, looked green the entire trip.

Z's saving grace were the movies that were being shown up on the bus's television screen. Bad Chinese gongfu, Russian roulette, high-stakes horse races...good fun for the entire family!

Going over one icy mountain pass, we whizzed by a chain-reaction accident in the opposite lane. Needless to say, we were thankful when we reached flatter ground! As an added bonus, the expressway down there was open, so we got to speed on to Beijing for the rest of the journey. Oh, and there was a return stop at the infamous "worst bathroom in the world ever." (You still have a chance to have the picture sent directly to your inbox! All you need to do is ask!)

And what about our gāosù money? The laoban returned half of everyone's high-speed cash, given that we eventually did make it onto the expressway.

Do you think that was a fair deal?


Our Day Trip To Tibet

Let me begin by thanking the Emperor Qianlong. Here is a guy I had scarcely, if ever, heard about before this year. Turns out, though, he was responsible for some of coolest sites we have visited over the past few months.

Take yesterday. Our mission was to explore some of the temples that were built centuries ago on the outskirts of Chengde. Several of these temples were built in a distinctly Tibetan style, giving the whole experience quite an "out there" feeling.

Our first stop was Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao. This seriously impressive place is a sort of replica of Lhasa's famous Potala Palace. Apparently, Qianlong erected this massive complex in honor of the occasion of his 60th birthday. (I'd better get working...Only like twenty years to make a plan...)

An interesting fact about Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao...A number of the buildings are just hollow shells, erected to make the entire experience seem grander. Dude...that's just so uncool...

A feature of Putuozongcheng Zhi Miao we couldn't take a photo of...A pair of nine-story sandalwood pagodas. Covered in dust. Totally impressive. Kind of make up for the hollow buildings.

Our second stop was Puning Si. This equally stunning operation is apparently run by monks, as you see robed men all over the place. As someone not at all familiar with Buddhist practices, I got the feeling that it may even be an active monastery. In one temple, for example, there seemed to be evidence (cushions, lamps, books) that monks use it as a study hall.

An interesting fact about Puning Si...One section of the grounds is dominated by these massive chains of locks, unlike anything we've ever seen before. The locks are inscribed with dates and names. As far as we could tell, the locks are purchased as offerings, kind of like what we do in Catholic churches with candles. (Correct me, somebody, if I'm wrong about this...)

A feature of Puning Si we couldn't take a photo of...Inside the main temple stands a 73 foot high statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. (Yes, 73 feet tall!) We counted that Guanyin has 28 arms. One of our tour books, though, says she has 42 arms. No matter...We lingered a long, long time here, gazing up at quite a spectacular sight.

Prayer flags, prayer wheels, high walls, lots of climbing...a taste of Tibet, right here in coastal China. Thanks again, Qianlong!


My New Mask

In the West, masks are often thought of as things sick people or surgeons wear. Not in China, though. Turns out, they work as excellent shields against the cold.

When we arrived in Chengde on Saturday, we noticed the rapid drop in temperature. After hearing that ears and noses sometimes freeze and fall off up north, Mommy and I were big on, shall we say, keeping "covered." So after seeing quite a few people on the street wearing the kind of mask you hook around your ears to cover your nose and mouth, Mommy and I were intrigued. We both decided that we had to have some of those "designer" masks.

From plain white to puppy print, we have them all now. After a few days walking of around in below zero degree temperatures (that's below zero in both Celsius and Fahrenheit), we have discovered that these masks rock! Say goodbye to that frozen nose and those stiff lips! Put in your orders now...How about a Mickey Mouse print?


My New Maozi

For me, our Chengde getaway was to serve as a test run for our forthcoming trip to Harbin. Given the sub-freezing winter temperatures of China's dongbei ("eastnorth" as they say in China) region, hearing that Chengde would be around negative 15 degrees Celsius (Harbin may get to negative 30), we figured we could work out any weak links in our armor.

At negative 15, it becomes apparent that what they say about heat loss from the head is totally true. As a person who likes hats, but never wears hats (mostly because my big New Jersey hair keeps them from fitting), I decided it was time to hunt one down.

To the Chengde indoor market we went. Hat after hat, I tried to find the one that didn't make me look like a chef...or a cat burglar...or, well, a flat head. Finally, the last one I tried was the one. After bargaining down from 65 to 25 kuai (thanks Z!), I put it on and headed back into the cold, now equipped with two coats, a scarf, long johns, two pairs of gloves, and feeling kind of like the Stay-Puff marshmallow mom and ready to brave whatever Chengde had to offer. And did it ever! At negative 22 degrees Celsius this morning (wasn't expecting that!), my head was toasty warm. Now, about our faces...


Monday, December 22, 2008

Xi'an Noodles

Ever since we were in Xi'an, I have not found noodles that are even close to the ones we had in the Muslim Quarter. I thought I would never find anything as good as those Xi'an noodles. Chengde proved me wrong...

It was our first day in Chengde. We were on our way back to the hotel after a long day out in the cold. On the way, Mom spotted a sign that said, in Chinese, "Xi'an Noodles." We continued on, since we already had a dinner place picked out, but we promised ourselves we would go back the next day.

We followed through with this promise. The next day we went back. We went inside and sat down at a table. We ordered three bowls of noodles with meat and one bowl of plain noodles.

One by one, the bowls came out. When they all came out, we began. The noodles were delicious! They were served in a thick, tasty broth.

Here were everybody's reactions...

Mom: "They are not bad, but the noodles in Xi'an were better."

Dad: "Oh, yeah! These are some nice noodles!"

Julie: "Yum! But I agree with Mom...Xi'an was better."

Z: "These are way better than Xi'an! These are incredible!"


PS: We went back again the next night!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

No, I Don't Need A Receipt!

Last night, as we were walking back to our hotel here in Chengde, I had a little encounter that I can't resist mentioning...

I ducked into this shop to buy a couple of sodas. I grabbed one Coke and one Pepsi, and headed over to where these two women were sitting. Plopping the sodas down, I asked, duo shao qian? (How much?)

Wu kuai qian yi ping, came the reply. "Wu kuai qian?" Really?

Now, I was puzzled because five kuai for a bottle of soda is a lot of money in this country. Usually, in a small market like this, three kuai is the going rate (and you can get them cheaper than that in larger stores). So five kuai per bottle is a simply non-starter for me...just on the principal of it. This was a blatant attempt to squeeze a few extra kuai out of the foreigner, and I was not going for it.

(I mean, imagine if a French person walked into Mamma Lucia's in Rockville, and Jimmy said, "For you, my French friend, the Chicken Brunello is 18 dollars." And then a moment later to the next person in line, "Hey Rocco! How about a Chicken Brunello for 10 bucks!?")

So how did I react? I calmly picked the bottles up, and brought them back to where I had originally found them. As I was heading toward the exit, one of the women asked me...xuyao fapiao ma?

"Do I need a receipt?" That's a strange question, I thought to myself.

It turns out that if I didn't want a receipt, I could have the sodas for three kuai each. Uh...sure...bu yao fapiao...I don't need a receipt.

(Back to Mamma Lucia's. Imagine the French person getting disgusted, and Jimmy calling out, "Hey buddy! Don't leave! I'll tell you what...So long as you pay cash up front, I'll give you the Chicken Brunello for ten bucks!)

Out on the street, Desi, who had observed the entire exchange through the window, asked..."What exactly was going on in there?" When I told her what had gone down, I wasn't sure if she was cracking up because the vendor had tried to rook me out of a few kuai, or because I was so determined to hold on to the equivalent of 60 cents.


PS: Desi sent me back in there again tonight. (It's kind of a sport for her, to watch me do battle out on the mean streets of China.) There was a different woman at the door. When I brought the bottles of soda to her, another woman, who had been there last night (and who this time was lying on a bed over in a corner...imagine if Jimmy had a place to lay down behind the register), yelled out that the price for me was san kuai qian (three kuai each). I guess she remembered that I don't need a receipt...

Ballas On Ice

For weeks, it seems, I have been begging Mom to allow me to go out on the ice. For example, at the Old Summer Palace, there were several lakes that had thin layers of ice. Every time, though, the answer was "no." Today, things were different.

We were walking in the emperor's mountain resort in Chengde when we came to a wide opening. There were people everywhere. They were walking on ice!

The moment I saw them, I said...Can I? "Yes," was the reply. I took off. Within seconds, I was on the ice. We ran around, laughing and talking. We did not leave for almost an hour.

Later, after we walked around the palace, we went back to the ice. We drew pictures and Chinese characters in the snow that had fallen overnight. At one point, Julie kicked me really hard on the back of the leg. That was when I fell.

When we were about to get off the ice, we got to a point where the snow had been cleared for little kids to ride small sleds. For about fifteen minutes, we slid on our feet across the ice. After that, we went off to find another adventure.


The Picture I Couldn't Post On The Blog

So there we were, sitting in a long distance bus, making our way from Beijing to Chengde. Chengde is the mountain resort that the Qing Emperors built and then used as their summer escape from the heat of the capital city. Essentially Chengde served, for a couple of centuries, as China's Camp David.

(By the way, notice the word "summer" in the above paragraph. For weeks, we have been taking grief for our plan to visit Chengde in the middle of winter. I think you should go to Chende in the summer. And...Chengde would be better in the summer. And...Chengde is a summer place. Message to China...You have no idea what you are missing! Chengde in the winter rocks! More on this in subsequent posts...)

But back to the bus ride. Oftentimes, on long distance trips like this, you are jolted out of your sleep by the bus slamming to a sudden stop and the driver or ayi announcing "xishoujian!" You groggily stumble down the stairs and join the crowd heading to the bathroom.

Now, most of the time, these stops are in fairly out-of-the-way locations. This little detail is important because the bathrooms in such places tend to be, shall we say, "not up to Western standard."

But, hey, we live in China, so these are the kinds of details we hardly notice anymore. Today's bathroom, though, even caught my attention. (And Julie's too...right Julie!?)

I really want to show you what this bathroom looks like on the inside, but I just can't bring myself to post the picture I took. I'll tell you what...If you are sufficiently curious, I will e-mail the photo to you privately. I'm serious! And don't worry...I won't think any less of you...After all, I'm the one who took the picture in the first place!


15 Cent DVDs

DVDs are cheap here in China. We've paid as much as 12 kuai (almost two dollars) to as little as a single piece of paper with the Chairman on it (about 15 cents). And none of them, of course, are fake...

...Don't you remember the scene in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian where the guy in the audience gets up (presumably to buy some popcorn)? I know it's become one of my favorite moments!


Rock Star Status

Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to need an "orientation" when I get back to the US. Not for "culture shock," but rather, "self-esteem shock." How can I return to being one of the crowd when I have gotten so used to the elevated status I have received in Zhongguo.

No arrogance intended, I assure.

For some waiguoren, the eyes that seem to follow their every move are a bit disconcerting. Clandestine pictures taken with cell phones, or individuals and groups who approach modestly, or sometimes boisterously, to get a quick snap shot of or with the foreigner, may bother some...but not me. I'm as happy to connect with them as they are with me.

A new variation on this theme occurred Friday night. After meeting the McReillys and other friends at the English corner of Renmin University (an English corner is a place for Chinese students, graduates, and basically anyone with interest to engage in English conversation with other individuals, English teachers, and maybe even a passing waiguoren), I found myself literally "elevated."

You see, when you walk through the English corner, small crowds will gather around you to see what topic you are discussing, and either stay and chat or move to a different conversation. As a group gathered around me, a young Chinese man who was obviously one of the English teachers, approached me and asked if I'd help him teach the crowd a few sentences. He handed me a piece of paper that had a few lines from "School of Rock" and escorted me to a chair. Before I knew what hit me, I was standing on the chair, surrounded by around 50 people who were hanging on my every word...well, actually, my pronunciation. They, with beaming faces, repeated my sentences loudly and clearly. I was truly impressed by their spirit and motivation.

At the completion of my "job," I walked away from the crowd to find the rest of the crew. I literally took five steps before I was surrounded, this time safely on terra firma, by another small group. They asked me all types of questions, and gave me advice about places I should visit and foods I should eat during my stay in China. They told me where they were from and gave me their opinions on everything from American politics to why the Old Summer Palace should be rebuilt. They were lively and refreshing, and I found myself wanting to talk and listen more. I was given a ten-minute warning... a five-minute warning... two minutes...(you get the picture).

So when I return to the States, please give me some time for my head to shrink back to its normal size, because now I know how Bruce feels when he finishes Born To Run. Wow!


So Where Are You Going For Break?

With the ring of the bell on Thursday at 12:15, most of the school, including the teachers, students, and other staff, were off. At an international school, however, these trips aren't just around the corner. With so many people from around the world, half the planes leaving Beijing must be full of people from our school.

Some people are going home to places like Korea, Italy, Qatar, India, Australia, Canada, and the US. Others are taking trips to countries like Thailand or the Philippines for a vacation on the beach. For those in China for only one year, there are trips to Hong Kong, Chengde, and Harbin. A few people are staying in Beijing to relax at home.

This is one of the most amazing things about the international school environment...there are no boundaries. People love to pick up their lives and go. Whether you stay at home or travel this Christmas, may God bless you!


Sports For Support

At school, we held an event called Sports For Support. It is an event to help AIDS orphans in Zambia. There were four options...

Laps of Hope

Hoops of Hope

Kicks of Hope

Serves of Hope

I did Laps of Hope, and Julie was a reporter for the school newspaper.

To open the event, some African drummers performed. After that, the event began. While doing your sport, you could get hot chocolate. My group's goal was to do 150 laps in two hours. We ran about 240 in total. I did about 50 myself.

Our group won the award for running the most laps. The total amount of money raised was over RMB 18,000.


The Human Zambonis

There is seemingly no floor in China that goes more than a few minutes without being swept or mopped. (Except the one in our apartment, that is!)

Because of this, I was only marginally surprised when I came upon the scene depicted in the accompanying photographs. There we were, strolling through Yuanmingyuan, a place that defies the busy streets right outside of its gates, with all of its lakes and connecting waterways. One can easily imagine what it was like for the emperor...escaping from the Forbidden City, passing through the city wall (where the second ring road now whizzes by), riding up to the edge of the mountains, and cooling off at this lotus-filled getaway.

Except that, now, here we were in the dead of winter. The lakes were freezing over, and the lotus was stuck in an icy grip.

And then we saw them. All of those workers. Metal, rake-like devices in their hands. Scraping the ice. Clearing the frozen lakes of thousands of dead lotus stalks, one piece at a time, by hand.

Impossible is nothing...indeed...


On Humiliation

I recently had the chance to speak with some young people about various historical sites around Beijing and China. These conversations revealed differences in how Chinese people and foreigners often approach the very same places and historical events.

Here's how the conversation usually goes...

Zhongguoren: Have you heard they are going to rebuild Yuanmingyuan?

[Editor's note: Yuanmingyuan is known in English as the Old Summer Palace. Around here, it is romanticized as being even grander than Yiheyuan (the Summer Palace) or the mountain retreat at Chengde (which is pretty darn spectacular...stay tuned...). It was infamously razed to the ground more than a century ago, when China repeatedly found itself at the mercy of outside powers. Click here to see and read about a previous visit we made Yuanmingyuan.)

Me: Yes, I've heard about that.

Zhongguoren: Don't you think it is a great idea?

Me: Actually, I think it would be the worst thing they could do to the place.

Zhongguoren: [Stunned.] Why?

Me: When you walk through Yuanmingyuan, and see all of those ruins, you feel like you are in a place where something important actually happened in the past. So many other historical sites in China simply do not have much of a sense of living, breathing history. Sure, they are many hundreds of years old. But they have all been restored and recently painted. They seem as if they are brand new, and not all that distinct from the tall, modern building next door. Yuanmingyuan is really interesting in a totally different kind of way. So, how does Yuanmingyuan make you feel?

Zhongguoren: I have never visited Yuanmingyuan. It would make me too sad. It represents such a humiliating period in China's past. I really think Yuanmingyuan should be rebuilt to its former splendor, so Chinese people and the world can see just how beautiful it was in its heyday.

So...There's a little East vs. West, in terms of dueling perspectives on historical sites and their role in preserving and defining the past. You be the judge...