Saturday, March 21, 2009

Wushan Ping Pong

While doing our normal search of a new city, in this case 巫山, we spotted an exercise park. Since we were laowai, we were greeted with second looks, laughing, and the usual "laowai" said to each other by Chinese friends. We sat down "in the cage" while getting adjusted to the scene. Two boys on a bike rode past us twenty times. Old women and young girls talked about us.

Seeing one of the equipment pieces open up, I was there. After using it for about five minutes, I noticed Dad stand up and walk over to where there was a group of boys playing ping pong.

Looking back over a few minutes later, I saw Dad playing with them. Dismounting the equipment, I walked over to where they were. Standing there for a while, I made the decision to play. After Dad stopped, I picked up the paddle.

There were seven boys who took turns playing against the silly waiguoren. Some were better than others. Some used spin. There were different varieties.

Well, you can imagine! I won like only thirty out of one hundred points. Some of them were when the other kid hit the ball into the net.

Compared to those kids, who would be sevens on a scale from one to ten, I would be a four. Obviously, I still have a long way to go!


Qing Jiang Putonghua

I have this shirt that says, in Chinese characters, "Please speak Chinese." I wore this shirt, with great effect, in Wushan, a small river town that boats pass by, but that sees very few waiguoren strolling on its streets.

In most places, my shirt elicits giggles as people walk by and read it. But in Wushan, the shirt played a second role that actually improved our ability to communicate with the town's residents. Since there are so many local dialects here in China, most people in small towns naturally speak their local language, making it nearly impossible for us to decipher their meaning.

Here's where the shirt really came in handy. More precisely translated, the shirt says the equivalent of, "Please speak the Queen's English." On at least one occasion, as we found ourselves surrounded by curious locals (while chowing down on the town's characteristic street foods...stir-fried potatoes and sweet, corn-bread like spongy cakes), the shirt sent the clear signal that standard Mandarin would be our only channel of effective communication.

So, thank you, John Pasden. (At least I think it is you who designed the shirt.) We were all able to laugh at each other's language liabilities. And we were able to learn something about each other (usually, my salary...always a hot topic in small towns) as well.


175 Meters

Getting out on the Yangtze River and witnessing first hand the rippling effects of the truly gargantuan Three Gorges Dam project was one of the most thought provoking events of our year abroad so far.

During the entire cruise, I kept thinking of all the cities beneath us. As I looked into the beautiful green waters, I was almost hoping to see evidence of this newly created Atlantis. But the cities are now as deep as the feelings that must be present in the people of this region.

I was curious to know how the locals felt about moving, and how they now feel about their new homes. Are they sad that they had to relocate? Or are they actually relieved to have a new place to call their own?

I considered some popular thought from the Western perspective of preserving history, and wondered if that is just a pie-in-the-sky view from afar. Do we, as foreigners, just miss the mark as we sit on our plush couches trying to impose our views on a culture we may not fully understand? (Don't get me wrong...I totally appreciate historical preservation as well as public opinion.)

In reality, the opinions are mixed. In spending a few days with locals from the affected river towns (Wushan, in particular), a few laobaixing shared their thoughts. One group of middle-aged people were very excited about the change, stating that the move was a great opportunity to relocate to cleaner, newer conditions. For some of the elderly residents, though, the reaction was less favorable, since for many the move was from flatter land to a much steeper, much less convenient area located on the side of a mountain.

So as the water continues to rise to the level of 175 meters, so too does my curiosity about how things once were, as well as what will become of these people and their new lives. While the pride in what China has accomplished through this human feat is evident in most, only time will tell what the true ramifications will be...locally, nationally, and world wide.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Wushan Girls

Transferring from our cruising boat to a smaller tour boat, our Chinese tour took us into the Small Three Gorges. We took lounge chairs on the top deck, where we could look out in every direction, and were given cups of tea. Before even leaving the dock, a whole group of people had come up from their seats below to take pictures as we entered the first gorge.

Among the crowd were two little girls who seemed to have taken a particular interest in our table. At first, we just smiled at them, but then Daddy began asking them questions and chatting about simple topics. They were nine and ten, and from Wushan, the town where we would be spending the night.

After leaving for a few minutes, they came and gave each of us a small card with a calendar on one side and a cartoon picture on the other side. They left and came back again with two cartons of milk, one for Z and one for me.

Eventually, Z and I took a walk downstairs to check out what they were up to. They noticed us on the outside deck and opened up one of the windows so we could climb in. They were sitting at a small glass counter, and had an assortment of papers, and drinks, and snacks laid out in front of them.

When we came in, they showed us that they had water for us when we were thirsty, and fake Chinese money they wanted to give us. The younger of the two even insisted on giving me a silver necklace she had.

Once Z and I were done "shopping," the two of us, along with the girls, went up to the top deck again. I sat back down in my lounger chair, and my two new mei meis (little sisters) pulled up stools so they could ask me questions in Chinese about myself. (Great practice!) I told them about all my favorite things.

Then, I started asking them about their favorite Wushan snacks. This started another conversation that the two girls loved. They told me about all the things they love, where I could get them, and why they were so delicious. The best part was when I let them listen to my iPod, and I put on a famous Chinese song. They were singing Wo Ai Beijing Tian'anmen like they belonged in the choir!

I really had a great time having fun with the two Wushanren, and definitely learned a ton from their sweet little voices about their life on the Yangtze.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Boat To A Boat...To A Boat

When we arrived in Wushan, the end point of our little Chang Jiang jaunt, our time on the water was not yet over for the day. We had, early that morning, passed through the first of the Three Gorges. (Actually, we kind of slept through the gorge, causing momentary tension and finger pointing in the family. Luckily, the next day we were going back up the river!) Our real destination, though, was Xiao San Xia (the Small Three Gorges) and Xiao Xiao San Xia (the Small, Small Three Gorges...gotta love Chinese!).

This all made for a morning of boat jumping, first from our "big" boat to a smaller vessel that could ply Daning He, a small river off the Yangtze. We spent several hours on the top deck of this boat, watching scenery as good as the first main gorge, but at even closer distances. Along the way, we saw what was supposedly a hanging coffin, as well as some monkeys scampering along the rocky shore.

Then, just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we jumped off our "small" boat and boarded a really small, wobbly, bamboo-like craft. Now we were sitting right on the water, being serenaded by musicians up on the rocks and listening to the soothing Chinese of our boat's guide. The ultimate reward of all of this rocking back and forth was incredible cliffs soaring way up either side of us, up above a river only a few dozen meters wide.

The Small Three Gorges, and especially the Small, Small Three Gorges, are definitely some of the best scenery we have come across anywhere. Funny names, too...


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Four Out Of Four Ballas Surveyed...

...Vote this selection of items, found at the gift shop on board our Yangtze River cruise, to be the strangest (zui qiguai de) yet.

I can't imagine the captain and crew actually wanting their passengers wielding these beauties on deck.


The Dice Game

At the end of a lovely day cruising down Chang Jiang, we were hanging out in this open area outside our room, enjoying the fruits of our decision to "travel Chinese style"...That is, we were chatting, mainly in Mandarin, with our fellow passengers. There was the little baby with the split bottom pants who kept peeing on the carpet. There was the tour guide who usually leads English-speaking groups, but who now has fallen back to running less lucrative domestic excursions, due to the lack of foreign visitors. There was the hard-to-understand Chongqingren who offered me a cigarette as a sign of respect...And I had just bragged how long it had been since my last smoke!

Anyways, we were having a great time, and then we heard some fun and games emanating from the main lounge, one floor up. We decided to go check it out...And that was when the real fun started.

The room was full of passengers being led by crew members in this game of dice. The three dice were red in color and life-sized (if that description makes any sense!). The idea of the game was that, for ten kuai, you got to go up in front of a room full of people and toss the dice over your head. If all three dice landed on the same number, you were a winner. The prize? A bunch of bottles of beer. How many beers? As each try inevitably ended in failure, a beer was added to the collection. After a few minutes, the count was well up over thirty.

It was at that point that the call went out for the laowai to give it a try. We had been hanging quietly in the back, but in reality we stood out no matter where we were on the boat. So there I was, not just once, but twice, and then back for a second encore of tosses. No, this is not a story-book ending, as this laowai had nothing but bad luck.

The fun didn't end there, though. The guy who tallied the highest cumulative total on his tosses was awarded some of the beers. Some of these bottles made it back to our table, and then there was some toasting and...yes...more cigarette smoking.

The game over, the karaoke came back on, and you know what is coming next. I let slip a Chinese song all four of us can sing, and the gang made sure it was cued up in short order. As Desi, Julie, Z, and I belted out Wo Ai Beijing Tian'anmen, we were joined on the floor by people swaying, singing, and taking pictures of us. It sure wasn't the Beatles doing Hey, Jude on the Ed Sullivan Show, but it was a great little moment for four wayward Americans and sixty of our closest Chinese friends.


Back On The Chinese Tourist Circuit

Since we came all the way to Chongqing, we figured it would be a good chance to jump on a boat and see some of Chang Jiang (the Yangtze River). Our only stipulation was that we did not want to be on a big cruise liner that caters to Western tourists. We had the idea to find a smaller boat where we would have no choice but to practice our Chinese speaking and listening.

With the help of Sophie, we were able to turn this vision into a reality. It isn't much, just a few levels of modest cabins. There's no heat on board, so as I write this, I am laying on my bunk with my winter jacket on.

And we're not the only ones. Last night, there was dancing and singing in the boat's main lounge. Desi remarked how everyone there was dressed for the elements!

This lack of heat, and the ever-present karaoke, are just two characteristics that are making this excursion decidedly Chinese. Yes, every cabin comes with a thermos for keeping hot water. Our outing to Fengdu involved the group marching from place to place, pausing briefly to listen to the guide tell a quick story and then push us on to the next stop. And the boat itself comes equipped with a series of rooms for playing Ma Jiang. Which we have done, under, of course, the watchful eyes of a constant procession of our fellow travelers.'s good to be back.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And The Answer Is...

Known affectionately as "stick stick soldiers," these men (and sometimes women) make their wage by carrying (and sometimes selling) almost anything you can think of on the ends of a bamboo pole or wooden beam. Found in large numbers in river communities, you can see them transporting luggage around cruise ships and ferries, carrying recyclables, food items, or even chairs through the busy streets. We even met up with one man at the end of the C-Mart check out counter waiting to assist with grocery bags.

Can you imagine seeing these guys at Giant, Shopper's Food Warehouse, or Pathmark?


River Town Jeopardy

Our next 50 points go to the contestant who can guess why these men are carrying bamboo poles.


Zhende Haishi Jiade? (Real or Fake?)

Jia de. But a very well-done model, set up in the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing, along with some other exhibits about the gorges, the dam, and the history of the region. Since we knew we wouldn't be traveling through all the gorges, nor seeing the dam on this trip, we were happy to catch a glimpse into the local perceptions of these places and events.


Now All The Ballas Have Zhongwen Mingzi

When Sophie asked all of us if we had Chinese names, we told her that we all do have a surname (Bai was given to our family by Steve's first semester students), but that only Steve has a given name. Then, she asked us, if that is because Julie, Z, and I aren't really interested in having Chinese names. "Not at all," we told her, "Actually, we'd love to have them, but no one has given them to us yet."

Once she heard this, Sophie was on it. Exploring different Chinese words and their meanings, and running each one by us, Sophie selected a name for each of us. We were touched that she took the time and put in so much effort to give us our special names.

For Julie, Yi Rou was chosen. This is a poetic way of saying "soft and gentle."

For Z, Mo Yu was the name Sophie picked. It's basic meaning is "having knowledge and willing to share it."

Finally, for me, Qing Qiu, which also means "gentle," was the selection.

While we haven't started calling each other by our new mingzi (we're still trying to figure out how to pronounce them correctly!), this event was just one more moving moment that has enriched us and made us feel a little less like waiguoren.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Chongqing Xiaochi

While visiting Southwest University, we had the opportunity to sample a few of the delicious culinary treats that this municipality has to offer. Our two favorites included a stop at what is reported to be "Chinese fast food" and another at a subterranean food court.

Wanting to treat us to all the locally famous hot spots, Sophie, our contact person at SWU and new hao pengyou, took us to a place known as CSC. Sounding remarkably like KFC (which Z calls "Kentucky Fried Children"), CSC (which Z has so-named "Chinese Stir-Fried Children," but actually short for "Country Style Cooking") provided a wide variety of choices. Ordering almost enough food for the population of Chongqing (which numbers around 30 million, by the way), our selections included some super spicy Sichuan noodles, a ham steak that was breaded and deep fried, tang mian (noodle soup), meatballs, fried chicken and french fries, bubble tea, mulberry tarts, rice, and some veggies. And, yes, this was fast food. The counter and the seating areas were strikingly similar to McDonald's and KFC, but the food, while quickly prepared and served, was really tasty and at least modestly healthy.

The true delights of Chongqing, though, were experienced later that evening. After running short on time because of some extended shopping and sightseeing, our planned meal of Sichuan hot pot fell by the wayside. While we did get a chance to have that meal at another time, this change of plans enabled us to head underground at the Jiefangbei shopping area to a food court that served all different types of street food. Once again, we left no dish unsampled. Starting with skewers of doufu, fresh veggies, mushrooms, and meats of many types, first boiled then dipped in some type of Sichuan concoction, then moving on to guo tie (fried dumplings), nangua bing (pumpkin cakes), bowls of tapioca and watermelon chunks mixed in with a substance reminiscent of jell-o, small pork dumplings in soup, and Sichuan la mian (noodles with spices unrecognizable, but perfectly mixed), we practically needed to roll up the stairs when we were done.

Eating in Chongqing was but another culinary adventure, once again proving that the Western concept of Chinese food is a bit incomplete.


How Do They Know Which One Is Theirs?

A common scene on Chinese campuses, including at Southwestern University, is the "thermos city." There are usually hot-water spigots in certain areas, and students drop their personal thermoses off at these stations on the way to class. Then, on the way back, they fill up their bottles and carry them back to their dorms. This particular thermos city, we thought, was interesting, colorful, and worthy of a photograph.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

While We Slept

ACC Champs! Number two seed in the East!

Let the games begin!

Go Duke!


This Is Southwestern University

The campus of Southwestern University is an interesting place. Nestled in the mountains, way out at the edge of town, the university is actually a new creation. Back in 2005, a local teacher's college was merged with a neighboring agricultural school. The result is an enormous campus, large even by Chinese standards.

One neat, little by-product of the hilly, immense scale of Southwestern University is the fleet of trams that cart students, faculty, and staff from one end of campus to the other. As we walked and rode, some of our favorite sites included...

A gigantic statue of Mao Zedong. The Chairman occupies a place of honor at one of the university's main gates, much more centrally located than the much smaller statue of Confucius. Einstein, though, has two statues in his honor.

Several athletic fields where students play games of all kinds. There was a lot of soccer, running, badminton, and ping pong going on. We even bumped into a student who was at my lectures...on a campus of 50,000 students...

And not only do students live on campus. There are plenty of retired university workers shuffling around, from their apartments to the university's green spaces, where they chat, play cards, and otherwise while the afternoon away. There are many worse places where I can imagine living and learning in these ways...