Saturday, June 27, 2009

Number Signals

A little known fact about Chinese culture is that there are hand signals for numbers. Almost like sign language, each number has its own signal. From one to five, the signs are almost the same as we would count on our fingers in the West. The only difference is that some numbers start with the pinkie, not the forefinger. Over time, I think all four of us have fallen into the habit of doing this as well.

For numbers from six to ten, there are specific motions that show each number. Six is like the sign language "y," while seven is made by touching the thumb to the first and middle fingers. Eight is like holding up a gun, except you don't point at the person you are talking to, and nine is shown by putting your forefinger halfway up. Ten has three different signals that can be used: (1) making a fist, (2) crossing the first and middle fingers, and (3) using your two forefingers to make the character for ten (十, shí). The third signal is the most common out of these three.

Out of all the numbers, the most common is probably six. People here seem to have a reflex that makes their hands naturally form liù whenever they hear the number called. People in the US are going to be totally confused (or maybe think we are deaf) when they see us making these same signs for the numbers. I guess we will have to teach our new found habit to the rest of the world!



We have finally done it! We finally went to Tianjin!

Yesterday morning, we decided to hop on the train to Tianjin. After a forty-five minute bus ride from Saoziying (our stop) to Xiyuan (the next stop!), thanks to the Yiheyuan weekend traffic, we decided to get into a cab.

At first, we thought that the train to Tianjin was at the Beijing railway station, and we told our driver to go to Yabao Lu, right by the station, where one of our favorite Muslim restaurants is located. After telling the driver our plan for the day, he told us that the trains to Tianjin were at Beijing South, a different station!

We changed our route, and after a sixty yuan cab ride, we bought tickets to Tianjin that left in less than ten minutes. The fifty-eight yuan was well spent by each of us for a fast thirty minute ride!

To get a lay of the land, when we arrived at Tianjin Station, we bought a map. Now, in my opinion, maps are cool, so I was the carrier. One thing I love about collecting maps is that you can see where you went. As the day went on, I traced our path.

From the train, we walked through French-style buildings to an awesome chuanr place where the chuanr were MASSIVE! From there, we crossed a cool white bridge, in the same vein as the Bird's Nest. Then, we walked along the river to an "Ancient Street." Julie and Mom bought key chains and I bought a cool gyroscope.

Coming out of that street, we went across the river to a church in an attempt to catch Mass, but Masses are only on Sundays. Then we hopped in a cab to Nankai University (南开大学). We walked through campus and came out near a water park and a museum that were both closed. We walked to Tianjin's TV tower, and down a side street where we bought bubble teas.

We then took a cab back to Tianjin Station, and had a thirty minute ride back to Beijing. After the ride back, we took a well earned rest!

Now, whenever the common question, Have you ever been to Tianjin?, comes up, we can answer, "Yes!"


Mental Math And Participles

One of the benefits of home school that I wasn't expecting is that fact that I'm learning too! Of course, I knew I'd be gaining an understanding of the kids and their best and worst practices...Hopefully in an effort to help them with their junior high and high school experiences. What I didn't see coming, though, is the personal benefits of looking back at the topics I learned and practiced so long ago.

Take Z's math program. Each lesson starts out with "mental math." This exercise encourages him to calculate different math operations in his head. From adding money to finding quick percentages, from counting up and down from zero to two by twelfths (reduced fractions, of course!) to figuring out averages, he does around eight of these each time. My goal? To calculate them in my own head (without the key!) and be ready for his answer.

It's close...But I am getting better!

Actually, it really is close, and both of us are learning the techniques that are being promoted by the text to become sharper. I guess the "use it or lose it" mentality makes full sense here, as I am experiencing a "mathematical awakening."

English grammar was never my favorite. Just ask Mr. Katz, my nine dollar an hour tutor who my parents hired for me in fifth grade because, when we moved from Linden to Iselin, the English learning program at St. Cecelia's was different from that at St. Elizabeth's. I had never learned to diagram sentences, but was faced with the task of understanding all those parts of speech...And their strange titles! Whoever heard of a past participle, anyway?

Well, Miss Fletcher would be proud of me now, as Z and I cover all of this, and more. We're diagramming sentences and conjugating verbs like it's nothing! Next up...Adverbs! (I'd better review a bit...It's been a while.)

All of this learning is really refreshing. To have a second go-round at some of these concepts, not only conjures up memories of all those teachers who tried their best to drill the stuff into my head, but also the worth of stimulating those areas of my brain that have been switched off for a while.

Move over ginkgo biloba...We may be on to something here!


Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Intriguing Life of Zhang Xueliang

Trivia time...Do you know the name of the person who founded your university?

Even if the answer is "yes," I'll bet your founder's life is nowhere near as interesting to the outside world as that of Zhang Xueliang, the founder (in 1923) of Northeastern University in Shenyang.

When I heard that we were going to take in an exhibit on the life of the founder of Northeastern University, my expectations, truth be told, were not very high. I mean, how compelling can the life of a university founder be?

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

As a child, Zhang Xueliang grew up as a kind of royalty. This was the period between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Zhang's father was a warlord in the northeastern part of the country, and they lived, shall we say, a rather privileged life. As a young man, Zhang succeeded his father as Manchuria's foremost warlord.

A few years later, at the height of China's internal turmoil, the Japanese controlled large swaths of the country, and the Nationalists and Communists were at war with one another for domestic supremacy. Zhang Xueliang was on the side of the Nationalists. In fact, he was one of Chiang Kai-shek's leading generals. It was at this point in his life that Zhang played a seminal role in changing the course of Chinese history.

In December 1936, Zhang Xueliang and another one of the Nationalists' leading generals kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek, in what is known as the "Xi'an Incident." (That's a picture of me next to one of the bullet holes where the events of that fateful morning unfolded. As an aside, it was not until my trip to Northeastern University that I actually put the pieces together and understood just what it was that had happened in Xi'an, even though it was last September when I visited the site where the incident occurred.)

Why, you ask, would Zhang Xueliang arrest his own party's leader at a critical moment in the struggle against the Japanese and the Communists? Chiang Kai-shek had recently announced his intention to focus first on suppressing the communist uprising, and then turning his attention to the occupying Japanese forces. For his part Zhang Xueliang preferred to do things the other way, that is, unite with the Communists in a joint effort to first expel the Japanese from Chinese soil, and then settle their internal struggle for power.

In the end, things did not turn out the way Zhang Xueliang imagined. After a series of complex negotiations, Chiang Kai-shek was granted his freedom, stopped attacking the Communists, and turned the tables on Zhang, kidnapping him in Nanjing. When the Nationalists eventually found themselves on the losing end of the civil war and were forced to flee the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek took Zhang along as a political prisoner. It was not, in fact, until more than fifty years later, in 1990, that Zhang was finally released from house arrest. At that point, Zhang, not wanting to choose between staying in the Taiwan of his Nationalist Party or returning to the China of his heritage, decided to emigrate to the United States. Zhang spent the last decade of his long life in Hawaii, where he is buried.

Now that is a twentieth century life. Who knew? For my part, the lesson I learned is not only that Zhang Xueliang played a crucial role in bringing about China's communist future, but also to suspend judgment about people I know little about until I actually find out more about them.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In Search Of Hong Chang

Here's what happens when you meet someone who is as crazy about Harbin hong chang as you are.

When hearing that Cathy, one of our gracious hosts at Northeastern University, is a native of Harbin, I immediately mentioned how much Desi, the kids, and I enjoyed tasting all of the varieties of hong chang they have up there.

"Can you get good hong chang here in Shenyang?" I asked.

"It's not as good as in Harbin, but I found a place that is pretty close. If you want, I can take you there tomorrow."

Now we're talking!

And so there we were, staring into the glass counters at a place called, appropriately enough, "Harbin Hong Chang." It was just like I remembered. Thin sausages, thick sausages. Fatty meat sausages, lean meat sausages.

I grabbed a nice selection of pretty much every type they had to offer. Most of it, Desi and the kids were happy to learn, made it back to Beijing. Some of it, though, did not survive the taxi ride back to campus...


This Tree Is Not Being Watered

When you are in China, and you see a person spraying a tree like this...Get out of the way! No wonder we encounter so few bugs on a daily basis!


This Is What An Unexcavated Qing Dynasty Tomb Looks Like

Before the Qings moved their capital to Beijing, it was Shenyang that was the home base of their dynasty. Because of this, the city has its own imperial palace, a kind of mini-Forbidden City, as I understand it. Shenyang is also the final resting place for the first few Qing emperors. One can only wonder what treasures are still buried underground in these tombs. For me, this mystery is part of the allure of the place. Here's one vote to leave things just the way they are...


The Fulbright Tag Team

Due to some weather-induced rescheduling, Glenn Mott and I had the opportunity to deliver lectures together at Northeastern University in Shenyang. This turned out to be a combination I personally would have enjoyed taking on the road several times over the course of the year. There was enough overlap in our respective interests in journalism and politics to give the students a kind of continuous narrative. Yet, at the same time, there was enough that was distinctive in our topics, so the students did not hear things that were truly repetitive.

For me, the highlight of the two days was when Glenn initiated a conversation with the audience on the idea of failure in China. Sitting there in the audience, I listened as the conversation kept coming back to the ancient master Li Bai, who failed on the straight and normal path of administrative service to the imperial court and subsequently carved out on an alternative lifestyle as a poet.

What struck me was how difficult it was for all of us to sustain a discussion where the examples came not from past history but from contemporary outcasts, people who do not neatly fit into the "get rich, don't make trouble" version of success that permeates the China of today. What about Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire in opposition to central government policies? What about petitioners who descend upon Beijing by the thousands, complaining that their farm land has been taken without just compensation in order to make room for factories? What about environmental activists around the country who protest major dam projects like Three Gorges?

What Glenn and the audience taught me over the two days is that I really need to shut up and listen to what others have to say. We often come from different perspectives on sensitive issues, that is a given. Can I stop talking long enough to learn why we interpret the same events in such contrasting ways?