Thursday, March 12, 2009

Should We Stay Or Should We Go?

Here was the scene outside of the building at Southwest University where I was to deliver lectures on the Internet and public participation (in the morning) and the politics of disaster management (in the evening). We had some great fun standing back and watching students walk by, read the poster advertising my visit, and then decide whether to go in or not.

As you can see, at least a few of them decided to hear me out. The lectures once again reinforced why hitting the road is one of the best parts of being a Fulbright Scholar.


It's Warm Outside, But It Gets So Cold In Here

One interesting fact about China is that buildings in areas above the Yellow River are heated, while those in areas below the river are not. So here we are in Chongqing, well south of the Yellow River. The temperature is significantly warmer than in Beijing. The foliage is bordering on sub-tropical. Yet, as I type this, I am wearing my fleece pullover, sitting in an apartment that is much cooler than our place back at Yan Bei Yuan.

In Beijing, the situation somewhat resembles what we have become used to as Americans living in the mid-Atlantic. It is freezing cold outside, and you really have to bundle up. Yet, when you come home, it is to a house that is snug and warm. (Well, my definition of "snug and warm" has no doubt changed this year, since we have no control over the amount of heat that gets pumped into the apartment.)

Here, though, things are reversed, in a way that just feels odd to us, given what we have experienced during the course of our lives. As we walk around campus, we see so many green trees, hear the birds singing, and enjoy the mild weather. (Today, apparently, is actually cool by local standards, though it feels nice to us.) Then we return to our on-campus housing...And the sweatshirts do not come off! Although this is probably not right, we are thinking that it is actually warmer outside than it is in here.

So, once again, a premise that we have always taken for granted (the cozy house as a respite from the cold winter) gets turned on its head, and we are left to ponder just how different life can be, not just in those big, earthshaking ways, but in those little moments that color our everyday lives.


Home School Hits The Road

Traveling around China this semester is our number one mission. In fact, it is the main reason we decided to home school the kids. For the next few days, we will be testing out the flexibility of the Seton program by bringing our materials with us on our journey to Chongqing.

For starters, we decided that carrying the full load of books with us would be a bit too much to handle (imagine eight classes worth of textbooks, notebooks, and accompanying workbooks), so we chose four subjects and will be doing a kind of "block schedule." Since it didn't really matter which subjects the kids brought, as long as they chose a couple of "tough" ones, they were able to pick the ones they wanted. For Julie, history, math, religion, and vocabulary went into the bag. For Z, it was reading, spelling, math, and religion.

Our first class took place in the Beijing airport. Julie worked on religion and Z worked on math. Second period occurred on the plane from Beijing to Xi'an. Subjects? Religion for Julie and reading for Z. No problem having a three-hour layover in Xi'an...The kids filled the time with periods three and four. More math for Z, math for Julie as well. Period five occurred on the flight from Xi'an to Chongqing. Julie finished up her math, Z did spelling.

You get the idea.

For us, this program is just what we need. The benefits? Number one...A one-to-two teacher-student ratio. (Sometimes two-two when Steve joins the fun.) Number two...I get to see exactly what the kids are learning in every subject, as well as how they learn (this may come in handy in the future). Number three...Their education really does venture outside the classroom, as the in-between time is filled with the sights, sounds, language, and culture of a foreign land. It is times like these (being "on the road") that I have a deeper appreciation for this course of study. No doubt, the workload is heavy, but the classroom flexibility can't be beat.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

No Wonder I Only Get More Confused As Time Goes By

As part of my regular news watching, I routinely check out the Wall Street Journal. The Journal's Asia home page provides a nice Western orientation toward what is happening in the region I currently call home, not to mention events around the world. I also keep tabs on the stories that are reported on China Daily's English-language website. From this source, I get a glimpse into the Chinese Communist Party's views on issues back in the States, as well as goings on here in Beijing and other places around the country.

Today, as on many other days, I was struck by just how different were the perspectives that the two papers presented on the news of the day. This is, of course, no profound insight in the least. Differences across Western and Chinese media cultures have been well documented by observers and analysts on both sides. Nevertheless, I think these two front pages provide nice little visual glimpses into how these differences sometimes play out on an everyday basis. You can click on the pictures to see for yourself what is being reported, what is not being reported, and how it is being reported. Here are some of the highlights...

Wall Street Journal Headlines
Chinese Vessels Shadow U.S. Ship
Dalai Lama Blasts Crackdown in Tibet

China Daily Headlines
President Hu stresses stability in Tibet
President Hu Meets Tibetan Deputies


Monday, March 09, 2009

Seeing The Summer Palace Through New Eyes

One of the real highlights of the trip to Shanhaiguan was, of course, our incredible walk on the wild wall. As we have mentioned before, that expedition would not have been possible without the timely assistance of Andreas, a German rail engineer who is currently spending nine weeks working in Shanhaiguan and who, with his Chinese companions, encouraged us to join in on their hike to the top of Jiao Shan.

And so it was very happily that we got the news that, just days after our return to Beijing, Andreas was coming down to our hometown for some sightseeing. We suggested that one day he come on out to our place, tour the Summer Palace with us, and then enjoy some food in one of the neighborhood restaurants.

From the start of this beautiful day (the warmest in Beijing in quite a while), we had a thoroughly fantastic time. Even though we were walking on ground that we have tread countless times, it was like being in a new place, as we strolled with Andreas, acted as his pseudo-tour guides, and took note of his reactions to things we have come to take for granted.

For some reason, explaining to Andreas that we are the only foreigners living in the neighborhood made us feel like we were standing out from the crowd, even though we normally get the impression that we have pretty much been assimilated into the community. We seemed to be generating a far greater number of stares than we have in a long while. Was this actually the case? Were we just imagining things? Or was it, alternatively, because Julie's hair was out in full force for the first time in a while?

At the Summer Palace itself, we were delighted at the chance to pass along some of the knowledge we have accumulated to someone so willing to hear stories of last emperors and yingfa (those dreaded Anglo-French forces). Speaking Chinese with people we bumped into along the way also seemed to take on a new feeling, as we were thrust into the role of translating for Andreas what was being talked about.

Finally, sitting at one of our favorite little restaurants gave us a chance to show off some of the great local cuisine that has been such an everyday part of our lives. Watching Andreas go take pictures of the turtle and frog before they were cooked up and eaten (no, not by us!) gave us one final visual of just how much of China we don't even notice anymore.

Thanks Andreas! Hopefully we can open each others' eyes again somewhere down the road!


Sunday, March 08, 2009

This Is Our Kinkos

The other day, we needed to fax some papers back to the US. It was the weekend here, but still business time on Friday over there. Since I was not on campus, this was not one of those times where I could use the fax machine in Xiusha's office.

Desi's suggestion was that we walk through the alleys in our neighborhood, as there was bound to be some little fax center. When I argued that we had never seen one, Desi responded that perhaps it was because we weren't looking and our eyes just didn't know what to look for.

So we all set out to look at the neighborhood with new eyes, and searched for signs of computers, copy machines, and other such indicators of office communications. We had a few false starts, including a side trip to a Internet bar, which had no fax machines but plenty of teenagers playing online video games.

And, then, there it was. A place we had walked past hundreds of times. Right across the street from our favorite vegetable stand. A small little room, with a couple of computers, a copier, and, yes, a fax machine. I used the few key words I had just pulled off an old ChinesePod lesson (talk about learning on your terms!), and off went the paperwork...


The Hard Seat

From the beginning, I have wanted to do some train travel via yingzuo. This translates into English as "hard seat."

Though this terminology may evoke images of wooden slats for chairs, as you can see, it isn't actually all that bad. Not all that bad, that is, until you consider that the people pictured rode in their seats overnight for as many as sixteen hours.

Hard seat, you see, is the way laobaixing (common folks) travel in China, even over very long distances.

It was the prospect of extended face time with laobaixing that attracted me to hard seat travel in the first place. I mean, what a way to immerse yourself in language and culture!

Of course, the whole experience is exhausting, a bit terrifying, and at times frustrating. Exhausting because you mind has to be "on." People are constantly talking quickly. And in locally accented language, no less! Terrifying because you are speaking with people who don't speak English, so you have no safety net, so to speak. And frustrating because you inevitably reach certain points in conversations where your Chinese just can't carry you past, even with your dictionary in hand.

That said, by the end of our ride from Shanhaiguan to Beijing, we had learned new words about fishing, a topic you never seem to come across in Chinese lessons! And Julie and Z learned some new words from out of the dongbei dialect, which could turn out to be useful if we make it back to that part of the country.

Overall, our inaugural hard seat journey was both exhilarating (speaking for myself anyways) and a reminder of just how much more our Chinese language skills need to be developed.


The Weird Museum

One of our strangest adventures in Shanhaiguan came when we took a rickety old bus from the center of town out to the beach area by the Old Dragon's Head. When we stepped out onto the road at the Lao Long Tou stop, we quickly realized that not only was there no one around, but also that we were not at the beach and seemingly not particularly close either. Several large signs pointed us in one direction toward a fork in the road.

As we walked down this road, a woman emerged from nowhere to coax us into these gates on our left. She repeatedly told us that if we went her way, it would only cost us thirty kuai per person, whereas if we chose the other path, fifty kuai would be the cost. Finally, we agreed, having no idea what exactly we were entering.

An old, dilapidated imperial-style archway welcomed us, and as we walked up the steps of what we presumed to be a museum, another woman popped out of a small door camouflaged into the background of the wall. She ripped our tickets and led us up a dark ramp that made me feel like I was in Hershey Park's Chocolate World. She took us into an open room and turned on the lights.

As soon as our eyes adjusted (the lights weren't very bright), we realized we were on a pathway above a model of the Great Wall. There was another dark room at the end of the pathway that obviously didn't have any lights at all.

By now, the four of us were pretty puzzled. If the fake Great Wall didn't confuse us enough, the next part really befuddled us. The room had a path around a large model in the middle of life-sized mannequins working to haul bricks and other supplies. The next rooms all held mannequins as well, each with a different scene.

With each turn we made, Z and I were whispering to each other that this would be the room where they would turn us into sausages (Sweeney Todd). One room had a scene with an emperor, the next one with a war between Chinese people and foreigners (there were lots of mannequins lying dead in this room).

By the time we reached the last room, we had gained five other tourists (all Chinese) in our "group." The ladies who had guided us through the "museum" now took us to see a Buddha. However, the Chinese people were kept in this room while we were shuffled out. One lady quickly told us we should turn left out of a very large parking lot to find the Great Wall. I guess we payed thirty kuai to find out the "secret" way to Lao Long Tou.

I don't think any of us have a clue what the purpose of going through the old museum was, but it sure gave our afternoon a twist.