Saturday, July 25, 2009

Setting Shifu Free

After a day in Manzhouli, it was time for the main event. We met up with the driver the travel agency had arranged for us, and headed out into the countryside. Within minutes, there we were, surrounded by the beauty of the Hulunbeier grasslands.

The ride out on the highway was gorgeous, and featured a stop along the way to look at the cows, sheep, and horses grazing by the roadside. This break also allowed shifu (our driver) the chance to puff on a cigarette while waiting for us.

When we finally pulled into the place we would call home for the next few days, shifu helped us get checked in and arranged lunch for us. There we sat, the five of us, chatting and eating away. When shifu went out for his smoking breaks, the conversation among the four of us turned to how we should go about giving shifu his freedom.

You see, shifu indicated that after lunch he would spend the afternoon in a town an hour or so away, and then he would meet back up with us. We were quickly getting the impression that there were five beds set up in our yurt for a reason!

Upon shifu's return, he and I had a conversation, in Chinese, that went something like this...

Me: So the four of us will be sleeping for the next two nights out here in the grasslands.

Shifu: What about me?

Me: You can go home now.

Shifu: Really?

Me: The four of us will spend the next couple of days having fun out here.

Shifu: How will you get back to Manzhouli?

Me: You can come pick us up in two days and bring us back.

Shifu: OK.

Before this arrangement was finalized, shifu had to make some requisite phone call, presumably to the travel agency to clear this apparent breach in protocol. After a few minutes of conversation, shifu came back over to us, handed us several hundred kuai in meal money, and said goodbye.

This was an arrangement that I think made everybody happy. Shifu did not have to spend the next three days living with a waiguoren family, but could instead return to his own home. As for us, we had finally achieved what we set out to do...To be out there in the middle of the grasslands on our own terms, free to go for hikes, watch the sunrise, and enjoy some quality family time together without the distractions of the modern world.



The city of Mazhouli is a Chinese outpost just a few kilometers from the Russian border. As a result, it is a place where two worlds definitely collide. Strangely, they also divide, as it is evident to even a fleeting visitor that this city of 150,000 people contains a distinct Russian area and a distinct Chinese area. Architecture, hair color (imagine a sea of black heads meeting the shore of platinum blondes!), and of course food selection, blare these differences to all who pass through.

Since our hotel was located in the section that is central to where Russian traders come to do business with Chinese merchants, Russian cuisine dominated and allowed us to enjoy some foods that were totally new but vaguely reminiscent of our Eastern European heritage.

Since the menu we received at the restaurant we frequented (three times in two days!) contained only Cyrillic and Chinese (funny to think that Chinese characters would feel more comfortable to us than language with letters!), we relied on some suggestions from our Frommer's guide and that our our fuwuyuan.

Tops on the list was a delicious, creamy tomato based soup called (in Chinese) suba tang. With the expected cubes of beef, potatoes, carrots, and the ceremonial bay leaf, we couldn't get enough.

After soup, we ventured through the menu, sampling Russian favorites like tudouni with niu rou. Basically, a serving of mashed potatoes with a small accompanying meatloaf. Again, a winner!

We also tried more curious delicacies, some of which we have no idea of the names...A banana wrapped in some type of coating and deep fried...Some type of small, round patty that tasted like the sweet farmer's cheese found in the Polish dish polichinka...A more Chinese style dish with white rice and eggplant (not at all Russian, but amazing as well).

Having never eaten these types of food before, we realized how few Russian restaurants there are in the United States, despite the huge size and importance of the country. No doubt, our taste buds were delighted to sample this cuisine, just a stone's through from its motherland.


Manzhouli Is A Bilingual Town...And Neither Language Is English!

Travel plans in place, we were freed to spend the afternoon and evening strolling the streets of Manzhouli. The whole experience was quite a shock to our visual systems. There, alongside the by now familiar Chinese characters, were big storefront signs in Cyrillic. Yes, Manzhouli felt like the most unrecognizable place we had been in a long, long time.

And then there was the shock to our auditory systems...Everyone was speaking to us in Russian! Sure, this has happened to us before, in Beijing's Yabao Lu neighborhood. But, this time, it was on a much, much bigger scale. We took to responding, Dubuqi, Eyu ting bu dong. "I'm sorry. I don't understand Russian." This led to puzzled looks, and the inevitable question, this time in Chinese, "Where are you from?"

What we came to quickly realize is that, even here in China, we still operate from an American-centric point of view. There is so much English spoken here, and so much attention paid to American culture, that it is easy to forget that there are bilateral relations between peoples that have nothing to do with America. In this case, there are Russian traders and Chinese sellers, and the United States is a foreign, far away place to both parties. As for the four of us Americans, the Chinese assumed we were Russian, and the Russians looked on in astonishment when we didn't answer in their mother tongue. It was definitely a funny feeling, to be the odd men out in this arrangement. Our solution to all of this potential discomfort was a simple one...We had fun and reveled in it, happy to provide a moment of uncertainty and levity to whomever it was with whom our paths crossed.


Will Somebody Please Try To Sell Us Something!

As we exited the airport at Manzhouli, we fully expected to be besieged with hawkers trying to convince us to let them take us out to the Hulunbeier grasslands. In fact, we were actually looking forward to this onslaught, having booked no itinerary or place to stay.

Imagine our surprise, then, as we walked out into the fresh, dry Mongolian air and saw nothing but a stray taxi or two, with their drivers chatting and smoking cigarettes, apparently not at all concerned with ferrying four clueless waiguoren around.

Appraising the situation, we quickly moved to Plan B. (There's always a Plan B!) We jumped into a cab and told the driver to take us to this well-known Russian restaurant in town. Actually, we jumped into two different cabs, as the drivers each already had passengers and were looking to fill out their loads. Normally, this would have been no problem, except that my driver dropped me off at the wrong location. In a bad move, I had given Desi the bag with my cell phone in it. Unable to contact Desi and the kids, I began walking down the street, trying to get my bearings, trying to figure out just where I was. Luckily, the driver who had taken Desi and the kids to the restaurant happened down the street, recognized me, told me to jump in, and ferried me to where the gang was waiting.

Crisis averted, we resumed our search for passage out to the grasslands after lunch. We had heard that local families hang out at the train station, and offer to take people out to their countryside homes. Asking around, we found the train station without much trouble. The only problem was that essentially the same taxi drivers were there waiting for the next train to come in. We lingered a bit, but nothing was happening for us, In fact, the only person to approach us was a businessman from Qingdao, who may very well have hoped we were Russian traders.

So what was Plan C? Back into the town center we trekked. (Manzhouli is a tiny frontier outpost.) This time, we were in search of something we normally steer clear of...A travel agency. Earlier, Desi had seen a sign on the outside wall of a hotel that featured a train and a woman who looked like a flight attendant. Sure enough, on the second floor of the building, there it was...A classically chaotic Chinese travel office. The small staff seemed amused at the sight of four Chinese-speaking, backpack-toting waiguoren. They were even more amused when we announced that we wanted to go stay out in the grasslands for a couple of days. "No, you can just go see the grasslands for the day," was their opening gambit. "But we really want to spend two nights sleeping in the grasslands," came our reply. "OK...Wait a second..."

Sure enough, next came the discussions and phone calls we have become so accustomed to. Eventually, we got the good news we had hoped for. The next morning, a driver would take us out to the grasslands, to a place where we could stay for two nights.

"What about tonight?" we asked. "Oh, you don't have a room yet?" This new problem precipitated a second round of banter and working the phones. At first, there were a lot of mei yous (no rooms). But then, finally, there we were, off to the bank to grab some cash and following one of the office workers to a hotel around the block.

I know the question you're asking...What would Plan D have been? Trust me...There was no Plan D!


School's Out: Home School Wrap Up

You can home school in the rain,
Or on a bus or in a train.
Sichuan, Guangzhou, Beijing, too,
There is no place that will not do.

Last week, we finished all but a few loose ends in our journey through Seton Home School. And while it seems as if we ventured into late summer, we didn't mind at all, given the tradeoffs. The freedom to take advantage of so many opportunities to travel and immerse ourselves in a culture with infinite offerings was well worth the challenges of a rigorous, albeit compact schedule.

Yet not only did the trips make a difference for us, but also the day-to-day living. The ability to spend two hours eating hot pot for lunch, or to meet Steve at the Summer Palace at noon for a pop-in visit to the longest corridor in China, allowed us to experience Beijing's countless offerings.

Were there struggles? Sure. The freedom to choose your own schedule can be a mixed blessing...Especially if you just want a few more minutes in your bed. Or if a sudden desire comes over you to head to antique market or...You get the picture. Thankfully, our drive to complete the program and give ourselves some wiggle room to "relax" during our last few weeks in China assisted us in our efforts through this type of independent study.

We all learned so much. Not only subject matter (which was very intense, especially algebra and history for Julie, English and math for Z, and religion for all of us), but a lot about ourselves. For Julie, I think the independent study, while lacking the class discussions she enjoys so much, allowed her to see what she can do when she puts her mind to it. For all intents and purposes, she taught herself, in the step-by-step method provided by Saxon Math, algebra. While there were certainly times when we would have liked to have flown Mrs. Gill over for a few days, Julie's true understanding of the concepts presented has really prepared her for the next level.

For Z, that mental math and those participles provided an overarching theme. Because of the design of the program, Z and I had tons of one-on-one time, which allowed both of us to work together to conquer these concepts. As a result, we know a lot more about the topics that Z will experience again next year, but more importantly, we know a lot more about each other. There is no substitute for the time we spent together.

Perhaps the most important lesson I personally learned from Seton Home School is that I'm not nearly as Catholic as I want to or ought to be. What I realized is that while always thinking that we were doing a fine job with our faith by attending weekly Mass and sending Julie and Z to Catholic school (no doubt a great start!), there are Catholic families who incorporate God into all aspects of their lives. They continue to study the tenets and history of the church, as well as to build prayer into their everyday lives. For us, we began each day with prayer, by reading about the life of a saint, and by sharing the daily Mass readings. In addition, we studied the Baltimore Catechism, which is an intense guide to the fundamentals of Catholic teaching and practice. Realizing the availability of these materials, as well as the fact that there are other families out there who have kicked it up a notch, I have been inspired to try and incorporate my faith into my daily life, and that of my family, in a more holistic way. While I may have even more questions (and answers!) than I ever knew I had before all this began, I believe that active thought will help me to put my faith into action in a way that will last long after home school is over.

In all, home school was a very positive experience for all of us. The time we were able to spend together was truly beautiful...The lessons learned, priceless. I know we'll always look back on this experience fondly, and while there is no doubt that returning to our traditional classrooms is not without huge benefit, the home school advantages are pretty substantial too. (And not just because you can have class in your pajamas!)


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nei Menggu

Over a year ago, well before we left the States, someone affiliated with the Fulbright program said something like the following...

"I fully expect to hear that the Balla family is hiking its way across Inner Mongolia."

Sure enough, tomorrow we set out for a few days in the grasslands of Hulunbeier. The Hulunbeier grasslands, we have heard it said, are the prettiest in all of China, and are among the most scenic anywhere in the world. Apparently, the grasses there are twice as tall as those outside of Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. And there should be relatively few people jostling us for views of all of this beauty.

Why so few people? Hulunbeier is located way up in the northeast of Inner Mongolia, along the province's border with Russia. In fact, Manzhouli, the town we are flying into, is maybe China's busiest land port of entry, as well as the place where the Trans Siberian railroad enters and exits Russia. From Manzhouli, we'll follow our noses wherever they lead us, which is why we're going in without having set up any places to stay. In a pinch, all of that grass looks comfortable enough! (Famous last words!)

We're also leaving the laptop at home, as I have no desire to cart it on my back! Who knows, we may stumble upon a yurt with wifi! Short of that, we'll write along the way and post our thoughts and pictures when we get back.


Talk About Fresh!

A few of the alley restaurants we frequent are very small. In fact, most of these xiao fandian seem to be family operations where all members have their own responsibilities, whether cooking, waiting and cleaning the tables (usually no more than a few), or purchasing the items needed to cook an order....Sometimes right after the order is placed.

While many restaurants do receive deliveries of meat, fish, and produce daily (although the deliveries are markedly different from those in the US, as they amount to a guy riding up on his three-wheeled bike or sanlunche with a bunch of bags of product and dropping them off on the doorstep of the customer), some of the very small operations tend to keep some staple foods on hand but also to head over to the conveniently located produce and meat market on an order-by-order basis to get the ingredients needed for their culinary delights.

My personal favorite example of this occurs every time we head to what we affectionately call "Restaurant #3." On the aside, before we could read the Chinese names of the restaurants in our neighborhood, we would name them ourselves using either a ranking of how much we enjoyed the food or by some other characteristic of the place. While "Restaurant #3" started out as our third favorite place to dine, it quickly rose to top status when we considered the food quality combined with the beautiful personality of the family that runs the place. Anyways, it's real name Pang Shifu or "The Fat Chef" is undoubtedly in reference to the somewhat round young man who dons a white (or somewhat white) chef uniform and assists a man who we think is his dad in the kitchen by hopping on his moped after each order is placed and rounding the corner to the market for the freshest ingredients. After a year of observing this guy (and his tightening uniform shirt...he's obviously trying to live up to his title), I know we all have indelible images of his routine.

Just another realization of the charm that is the alley neighborhood. It may not be pretty to look at, but it is the type of community that all neighborhoods should strive to be. Suggesting to Steve and me of what it must have been like to live in places like Elizabeth, Linden, or Rahway, NJ back in their heyday (glimmers of which we had during our childhoods), these characteristics can only be mimicked by the "New Urbanism." It will take more than a facade of retail beneath high-rise to capture this feel. It will take people who want to interact, who want to spend time just hanging out and talking, who see the advantages of sitting on their front porch, instead of their back deck to watch the people go by.

Fresh produce, fresh conversation, now that's fresh.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Yi Xian Tian

As Z and I hiked through this one valley at Shidu, we came upon a really cool canyon. The canyon, as you can see, is no more than a few feet wide and towers above you as you walk through it. It is easy to see how it got its name, which loosely translates into English as something like "A Thread in the Heavens."


The Guilin Of The North

Way down in the southwest corner of Beijing Municipality, not all that far from the Hebei Province border, is an area known as Shidu ("Ten Crossings"). I have heard Shidu billed as the "Guilin of the North." This would be the equivalent of calling an area near DC the "Grand Canyon of the East." High praise, indeed!

And so it was that Z and I embarked on a father-son adventure to check Shidu out with our own, Guilin-savvy eyes. I say "adventure" not only because of the hiking we knew we would be doing, but also because of the inevitable uncertainties we would encounter on our way out of the city into the countryside.

In one sense, the journey was pretty straightforward. We jumped on the 952 bus right at Saoziying, and then transferred to the 917, which took us all the way out to our destination. On the computer screen, as I mapped this itinerary out, I guessed it might take us two hours altogether.

But when it was two hours before we even reached our transfer station, it was undeniable that Z and I were getting way more than we bargained for! No matter...To Z's credit, he did not waver in the least, which helped me keep my spirits high as we rumbled farther and farther away from Beijing.

Actually, all of that time on the bus was pretty interesting, especially when we made it out to this area where there are a lot of rocks being quarried. This was quarrying with Chinese characteristics. Mile after mile of these roadside establishments that have huge rocks for sale. Some rocks are sold as is. You see, every apartment complex seems to have a big stone at its main entrance, with the name of the neighborhood carved into the front. (You are looking at Julie and Z standing in front of Yan Bei Yuan's central meeting place.) All of these stones have to come from somewhere! The same holds for all of those stone lions that are outside of banks, restaurants, and other business establishments all over Beijing. Well, now we know where to pick up these kinds of decoratives if we ever become China-based entrepreneurs.

When we finally jumped off the bus, and stretched our stiff legs out, it appeared as if we had suddenly been transported to somewhere in southwest China. Sure, there are more stunning sceneries along the Li River, in Yangshuo, and out in rural Guangxi province. But the karst mountains we hiked through that day were spectacular on their own merits. And they are right here in our Beijing "backyard"...



Editor's note: I originally wrote this post some time last fall. In the many, many months since then, Z and I have been regular visitors to the ping pong hall at Yan Bei Yuan. Our games have certainly improved, although we have a long way to go catch up with the crowd here. And, long ago, we bought new, more expensive paddles, so we can no longer blame the equipment for our competitive shortcomings!

This was the score by which Z and I lost our first-ever doubles ping pong match...To a team of two guys old enough to be Z's grandfathers.

But, first things first...How did we get involved in the ping pong scene in the first place?

One of my complaints, from the very beginning, was that there is no place to da qiu in Yan Bei Yuan. I mean, this is China. It's the national game. There are tables everywhere...Just not in our neighborhood.

Well, that's what I thought until the day I found out that a professor two doors down from my office also lives in Yan Bei Yuan. (Why does stuff like this take two months to happen?) As I was lodging my "there are no tables to play on in all of Yan Bei Yuan" gripe, I was greeted with a puzzled expression. "Of course there are ping pong tables in Yan Bei Yuan."

Like so many things here in China, you have to know where to look. Walk down the path between two of the apartment buildings. Eventually you will come across a low, white building. Non-descript. You could walk right by without hardly noticing it. Inside? Yep, there they are, those elusive tables.

Every late afternoon, a bunch of retirees gather to play highly competitive, yet jovial games of doubles. Think Yoda. He can hardly walk. But put a light saber in his hand...

It's not like I'm bad at ping pong, or anything like that. Well, actually, relative to the crowd here, I really do stink. Now, nobody has actually come out and said this. One guy, though, after examining Z's equipment, told Z that his father ought to buy him a better paddle.

Yeah...That's it...It's the equipment!