Archive for October, 2008

Thursday, October 30

A gray day that became cold and rainy as it went along. My scheme for training Amanda came to a crashing halt when Siren and Rachel, who had been working with Mike, both wanted me to work with them. We went back to the galleries and the three girls took turns presenting their material. Amanda improved with the individual attention, and I think she’s learned about half of the word list.

We have been encouraged to visit each other’s placements, so after the Chinese lesson several of us went to the foster home for babies. This is a large apartment in a big, good looking housing complex, with 22 babies who had been abandoned by their parents and possibly 8 nannies, run by a South African wooman. She takes babies with birth defects from the regular orphanages, provides surgery, if possible, to fix their problems, then puts them up for adoption. The babies have conditions like spina bifida, cleft palate, large facial birthmarks, heart conditions, etc. At least one of the babies, with a hugely over-sized head, is just being cared for until he dies. Two of our people have been working there since we arrived. They just go and play with the children, giving the nannies a chance to give more individual attention. I was interested to see the setup, but I can’t say I’m any more fond of babies than I was when I was younger. I still prefer children who can talk to me.

We went out for dinner to a local restaurant. Since none of us speak much Chinese, and may never be able to read the menu, it was a real exercise in ingenuity. We went to a barbeque place and ordered skewers of beef and chicken. Looking at what other people were eating we finally settled on a dish of soup and noodles, and ordered three of those for the five of us. Then we had to get extra bowls and spoons so we could share. Somehow it all worked out. The restaurant people were pleasant and cooperative; the food was great.

Thursday night is English corner night. We had about 20 visitors split in two groups with five of us to handle the two groups. Jonathon and I took one of them along with a woman visiting from the U.S. whose son works for CCS. We discussed both the Chinese and American educational systems and getting jobs and how the job market works in the U.S.

I finally managed to get some pictures uploaded. Not the way I wanted, but it will have to do for now. You can see pictures from my trip to the Countryside, October 18 at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=130210&l=5e60c&id=1547011948
Sorry I can’t make it a link.


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Another day with Amanda, although Siren joined us after about an hour. When I first arrived at the museum there were a lot of cars parked on the pavement, mostly black expensive ones with darkened windows—party cadre cars. Amanda, who is usually waiting for me, rushed up and told me there was a big ceremony going on; they were opening a new gallery. She wanted to go but I felt it would be more profitable to work on her script. I agreed to go to the new gallery after we spent our time working. We sat in her office and read the script with me correcting every pronunciation mistake. I wasn’t being too picky, just the really bad ones that she wasn’t getting or the words where she dropped syllables. I wrote down each of the words she consistently mispronounced and tried to give her guidance. For instance, she would say “win” instead of “wine.” When I wrote “wyn” she got it. I think there were about 15 like that. I gave her the page for homework.

Finally Siren and a couple of the other girls came into the office dressed in what were supposed to be Tang Dynasty costumes, long, red embroidered chong sam type with little jackets. The girls looked beautiful. Almost all of the tour guides are beautiful. The dresses didn’t look anything like the Tang Dynasty pottery figures shown in the museum. Siren in regular clothing joined us and helped correct Amanda and, to some extent, the script. It seems that things keep changing in the museum.

After we put in our time we went to see the new exhibit. There is a temporary exhibit space that had recently shown something about the Olympics, although it ended before I began working there, and the gallery was closed. Now they were showing photographs and objects about the excavations that had taken place in Shaanxi Province in the last 30 years. The excavations have been extensive and the findings amazing. Unfortunately, the exhibit is entirely in Chinese; without my two guides I would have recognized some things but only been able to guess about most of it.

After lunch and the language lesson, I went shopping. I’m really concerned about not having enough warm clothes. I’d like to buy a winter jacket. My usual problem buying clothing is that my shoulders and top are about two sizes smaller than my middle. I’ve lost some weight, recently, but it never seems to come off the middle, so the problem remains. It was interesting shopping here. They don’t have plus sizes at all, and not too many standard large sizes. It’s understandable—there aren’t too many plus size women here. I’ll think about it for a while. I might just buy a men’s jacket.

As I walked to the store I noticed a child sitting on the pavement begging. I think it was a girl. She looked awful. I think she had been burned. She had no hair on her head and no fingers. The skin on her head, face and hands looked shiny and mottled. She moved awkwardly, like you see robots move in movies. At first I thought it was a robot. She had a sign in front of her I couldn’t read, attracted a huge crowd and collected an amazing amount of money.

Eva told me these children are taken from the country (stolen or bought, I’m not sure which), and they are deliberately set on fire and maimed. Then they are taken out to beg. It they don’t collect enough money, they are mutilated even more. Because they can’t prove the crippling was deliberate, the government is unable to stop it. One of our group remarked, “This is the government that can do everything.”

We are cautioned on our first day here that we are not to give to beggars; it only encourages more begging. Coming from the New York area it’s easy to be hard-hearted—you get a lot of practice. While I was eating my meat skewer in the Muslim quarter an old woman came up to me, begging and indicated she was hungry. There was some meat left in the bowl so I handed it to her and walked away. I don’t know if she ate it.

This was the night to pay respect to your dead family members by burning paper money and other paper objects in their honor. We decided to go out and see if we could find anyone doing it. Only the usual crowd of shoppers were on the street near the apartment so we walked over to the temple I visited last week and found a couple of vendors selling these paper objects, including paper clothes for a small child, many kinds of fake money and some other paper things I never understood, but now I know they burn them. About a half dozen people were outside the temple making fires, some of them quite large. It is interesting to me that this occurs at the same time as Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

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Tuesday, October 28

Today I worked alone with Amanda, and discovered her English was worse than I had thought. We spent a painful hour and a half walking around the museum with me correcting her pronunciation, asking her to repeat what she had just said because it probably wasn’t English, at least not as I know it, and figuring out how I can best teach her. I asked her if she thought I was a good teacher. Without hesitating she said yes, then said she was a terrible student, if she was the teacher and had a student like her she would be angry. I’m not happy with her, but not angry either. I really think she would do better if she had a better attitude. I don’t think she wants to be there.

This was another chilly day; the long underwear felt good. I hope I have enough warm clothing with me. I think I have to start wearing gloves. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen until November.
This evening we had a lecture/concert about traditional Chinese music. A lovely woman named Li Hong Wei, a recent graduate of Xian Conservatory, came and played the Guzheng, a 21 stringed zither. It was a lovely concert with folk music and a couple of contemporary works.


It was kind of a slow day, but I also did my laundry and had another Chinese lesson. I suspect I might learn something if I stayed here long enough, but with only a week and a half left it’s not going to happen.

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Monday, continued

In the evening, four of our group, which is now down to six, went to visit an ancient folk house also in the Muslim Quarter of the walled city. This house, which has 86 rooms and covers an area of 2517 square meters, was awarded by the emperor to a man who, at the age of 12, took second place in the imperial examinations 200 years ago. Subsequently, seven generations of the family lived in this house and worked in the royal palace, until it was confiscated by the government at the beginning of the cultural revolution. Restored and given UNESCO protection it is now open to the public. Fortunately the public, and the guidebooks, don’t seem to have discovered it.

The house has been furnished with Ming and Ching furniture and some of the belongings of the family. Two pairs of tiny women’s shoes for bound feet illustrate how terrible that process must have been. The shoes were just slightly larger than infant’s shoes, the kind they never walk in. The house was really lovely; I enjoyed seeing the layout, particularly the interesting courtyards connecting the rooms.

After we toured the house we sat for a tea ceremony. It was less dramatic than the one I watched in Shanghai, but had the advantage of costing me nothing. Then we moved on to a shadow puppet show. Two men sat on either side of the screen playing musical instruments and singing. One woman manipulated the puppets behind the screen and sang the women’s part. We went backstage to see how it all worked. It was great fun. The evening ended with the purchase of some snacks from one of the Muslim vendors.

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Today, being my day off, I decided to walk on the city wall. Xian has had walls almost since its beginnings. Most of the group went up there during our first week. They rented bicycles and rode around the walls. It’s a long trip. The bike rental gives you 100 minutes and they barely made it back in time. Of course they stopped for lots of pictures. There are also options to rent a bicycle rickshaw or a small electric bus. I wasn’t too happy with either option because I wanted to take pictures. So I started walking. I really loved it up there. It was a little cold and gray so there was little traffic and I had a lovely time going from the outside wall to look at newer areas back to the inside wall where there were mostly older areas. There’s a lot of new stuff inside the walls, but they haven’t gotten around to urban renewing the stuff immediately adjacent to the walls on the inside.

I walked to the third gate, called Hanguang, and decided I’d had enough. I was getting cold and tired and it was near lunchtime. There was a funny quonset hut like thing to enter and it was warm inside. A small sign invited me to visit the museum. I had no idea what that was about; there was nothing in the guidebook. Down the stairs I found myself in a beautiful, new modern building housing a large excavation in the center and some stele and other objects with calligraphy on them along the second floor walls. This second floor was the Xian Museum of Calligraphy and the first floor was the Museum of the Hanguang Gate Remains. It was really extraordinary. I spent quite a lot of time there finding out how the city walls had changed over the centuries. If I was a little more interested, there is enough material for a fascinating study.

I walked out and got a taxi to the Muslim section again. So far, this is my favorite part of the city. It is the most like an old city with all of the tiny shops, wonderful aromas, lots of people milling about the streets, which are narrow and don’t allow for cars or buses. Of course, you could always get run over by a bicycle. I skipped the tourist junk and just walked along the food street, inspecting all the offerings. I don’t eat very much these days, my heart meds seem to have put the brakes on my appetite, but I’m still interested in looking. I was hungry; it was lunchtime; but I wanted the exact right thing.

I didn’t want meat again. There were large vats of potatoes, lots of pancake type things, some other stuff I didn’t recognize. Finally I found a bread that looked appealing. It almost looked like a small pizza, round and flat, but it was covered with spices—peppers and zatar. After determining that I understood it would be spicy they heated the bread, then sliced it like a pizza and gave it to me in a small plastic sack. I contentedly munched on bread and spices as I continued walking around the market.

I have more to write, but I just found I could access the blog so I’m posting this. Maybe I will only have access on alternate days.

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Sunday, October 26.

I returned late last night and as I got in bed it felt like I had come home. After the stress of traveling and never being sure I was in the right place it was just wonderful to get back here. I went out to the Forest of Stele Museum this morning. Again I had an expectation that was not fulfilled. The stele were housed indoors, not unexpectedly, but they were encased in bricks encased in glass and metal. If you wanted to examine the calligraphy you really couldn’t, the reflections were so bad. However the buildings were in a nice garden and in the last two or three of the seven buildings men were making rubbings from some of the stele. It looked like they did a brisk business selling rubbings. I enjoyed watching them work; I always wondered about the technique. I think they were only using relatively newer stele, 100 to 400 years old, and I wonder, if in 50 years or so they won’t regret not taking greater care with them.

The museum is inside the city walls, a huge area containing lots of tourist junk along with some very pricey retail. I walked toward the central area along a street with small shops and kiosks selling calligraphy, paintings, calligraphy supplies and every kind of useless souvenir imaginable. Nothing was unique. After you’ve passed a kilometer of this stuff repeated over and over it’s hard to buy anything. I would like to find some useful tourist stuff, like books in English, but I haven’t found it yet. I walked past some of the fancier shops and malls and finally got to the muslin quarter, another giant tourist trap. I’m looking at all this stuff to decide whether I’ll buy any for gifts to bring home. I don’t really want to carry it to Japan but I think it’s cheaper here.

The Muslim quarter has to be the motherlode for all the knockoffs they sell on the street in New York: the watches, sunglasses, pashmina scarves, and even some underwear. Pashmina is funny stuff. I thought it was supposed to be about 55 per cent cashmere and 45 persent silk. As I looked at the labels I found 55 percent pashmina 45 percent silk, and another one was 100 persent pashmina. In New York those scarves sell for $5 or $10. So pashmina has to be some kind of acrylic and I suspect the silk is another kind of acrylic.

When I’m in Japan I’m always looking for stuff that isn’t made in China. Here I have to keep reminding myself there is no other place it comes from. Again, every stall carries the same stuff. I saw some purses that may be unique but that was about it.

I finally left the market and got to the food street where I bought myself a skewer of lamb with wonderful spices, I think chilis and something I know as zatar. It was great. Walking back to get a taxi I passed a little shop called Look China. It had some wonderful high-fashion clothing with Chinese detailing but not the usual junk you can get in Chinatowns. I’d love to buy something for Robin and Charna but i’m not sure about sizes. The wonderful jackets may be too large.

In the evening Laura and I, the only ones in our group who were here, went to dinner with a local family in another building in this apartment complex. It was very interesting to see the differences, and to see how this family lives.

We had a lovely dinner, which they said was typical of what they eat: steamed broccoli; bamboo shoots that didn’t taste anything like the stuff we get, with chicken; corn with pine nuts; lotus roots; beef that looked like it had been corned or pickled, it was red, but tasted different; a fruit salad with kiwi, apples, grape tomatoes, and dressed with mayonaise and yogurt; something I had never seen before made with chives; and finally two kinds of dumplings they had just made.

The thirteen year old daughter spoke wonderful English and interpreted for her parents, who seemed to understand most of what we said, but didn’t speak much. This girl would like to come to the US for high school and college. She is just finishing 8th grade. It has to be heartbreaking for the parents to let her go so far away, so young. They want her to get the best possible education.

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Back on the train to Xian and very tired. Longmen caves were good but too crowded. I came here with the idea of strolling alone along a path lined with caves and grottoes cut into the mountain. And my stroll was on flat land, probably because when I was in Dun Huang in 1982 our small group strolled through the desert on flat land and looked into the caves. I wanted that experience again, but it was not to be. At times Longmen was almost as crowded as the Shaanxi History Museum with tour guides shouting into their microphones and tourists taking pictures of each other in front of each cave. Do they ever look into the caves? And there were no end of stairs. You’ll see how high I climbed when I post the pictures.

Traveling around China, alone, has been very interesting. I’ve been getting a lot of help, many people have stopped to talk to me, although there’s usually an ulterior motive: either they are practicing their English or they want to sell me something. It’s usually a suble sell; they help me, sometimes unnecessarily, then hand me a business card and urge me to come to their shop, like the guy in Shanghai, or even try to sell something right there on the street like the Amway guy who helped me with the train. But the best was the train official who helped me down a flight of stairs that didn’t have a railing. I’ve been using the cane all day. I was certainly happy to have it at Longmen. I would have preferred the walking stick but the cane collapses to a smaller size and I can put it in my purse. I had the cane when I got to those stairs, and I would have gone down them myself, but not very fast or easily. The official saw me struggling and came to my rescue, and never tried to sell me anything.

The hotel arranged my return train ticket. Evidently it couldn’t be done from Xian. I thought I would like to take a 5:45 train, figuring that I would be happy to stay in Longmen most of the day. The proprietor of the hotel told me I had to take a 3:45 train; I would not be able to get a seat on the later train. She said it would give me enough time at Longmen. She was right, in fact I could have taken an earlier train.

I skipped one of the temples; I just couldn’t climb anymore, and was back in Luoyang at 1:00, looking for lunch. I had a sort of recommendation for a restaurant, but couldn’t find it. Finally went into a Muslim restaurant and ordered something from a picture I could barely see. The picture looked like some kind of meat with a lot of green vegetables on a round plate of indeterminate size. What I got was a large, square tray with potatoes, meat, red chilis, red chili sauce and a few almost invisible strands of bok choy. The meat was small bits of chicken and probably lamb. The whole thing was marvelously spiced with cinnamon and star anise along with the peppers. And looking like a smaller pieces of potato were chestnuts. I couldn’t eat the whole thing; it was much too large, but I picked out all the chestnuts. I was very grateful for the good lunch, my dinner last night was two bready things from Trustmart, the alternative being instant noodles and I couldn’t bear the thought. Dinner tonight is more bready things, leftover from last night. I will get back to Xian about 9 pm. I can’t wait that long for dinner.

The hotel price included breafast, which was my first experience with breakfast out. The hotel in Shanghai only offered room service and the description looked kind of British or the usual overly expensive Continental. I was the first one in the dining room at 7 am. I handed my breakfast ticket to a rather diffident girl behind the cashier’s counter. She waved me to a table, then walked to a pass through to the kitchen where she was given a tray to give me. It contained a bowl of rice congee (gruel) that is somewhat like soupy oatmeal, a small dish of lettuce with some kind of green scallions or relish on it, a dish holding a hard boiled egg and a dish with three steamed buns. I think tea was available but I didn’t want it; I knew the day would have bathroom problems for me. I ate the hard boiled egg and two of the steamed buns. They are supposed to be eaten with the congee, but that’s another thing I don’t like to think about.

As for my toilet experiences, I can’t squat, at least not for more than a few seconds. That’s required in most of the public toilets here. So my visits to the toilet require me to remove one pant leg, hold the whole thing to one side, and straddle the hole with a wide stance, all of this while trying desparately to keep the pants from touching the floor. I’ve only had to do it twice, so far, fortunately. Before I signed up I made certain CCS had western toilets and that was also my requirement for the hotel. Amazing how important something you use for only a few minutes can be.

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Friday, October 24

I am sitting on a very crowded train on my way to Luoyang. Eva made the arrangements for me and gave me a paper with pertinent Chinese phrases for getting me on the train. The train station is huge and the area in front of it was filled with people, coming and going. Eva told me to ask people in unifom for help. At first I didn’t see anyone, finally a young woman walked by and pointed to where I had to go. As I got in line to go through the gate a woman asked in English if she could help me. We were going to the same train and she guided me through the crowds and to my train car. I am now seated in the middle of a group of young people. I think two of the women speak a little English, but probably not the young men. They are very curious about the computer. I offered to let them look at it, but no one took me up on it. This group is probably going to Luoyang also, so it will be easier for me to get off at the right stop.

Mike started rewriting the English script for the tour guides. He is leaving today, so I have offered to continue his work. They were able to email the document to me. At least I won’t have to re-enter the text. I’m hoping to get a lot of the work done on the train, since the trip is five and a half hours long.

Goodbye to Mike

Goodbye to Mike

We have been passing through a wonderful area with mountains nearby. The train has emptied out to some extent, at least no one is standing, the young men are gone and the women sitting beside me are very pleasant, if not communicative. The mountains remaind me of the Rockies, sharp-pointed, majestic, rocky and almost bare.

I just caused a big commotion but I don’t know whether it’s because of the computer or because I’m traveling alone. One of the girls told me the parade of train personnel that went by admired me, but she couldn’t tell me why. There is an old woman sitting across the aisle from me with a whole entourage helping her, even massaging her swollen feet. When she went to the bathroom two other women went along with her. I suspect she’s younger than I am but it’s hard to tell. She turned out to be quite pleasant even pulling me after her as she got off the train. Chinese are not particularly polite about lining up for things; I probably would have been the last one off if she hadn’t grabbed on to me.

The young woman who spoke some English offered to help me find the hotel, which turned out to be just a short walk from the station. I was very grateful, particularly since there were many people demanding you take their taxis or tours. I think they are very hungry here. Probably not too much business at this time of year. The hotel is adequate, but not great. It’s big advantage is convenient location and a woman who speaks excellent English. I will get up early tomorrow, have my comes-with breakfast in the hotel and get on the bus to go out to the Longmen caves, then another five and a half hours back to Xian. It’s an idiot trip but not the first time i’ve done something like this to see interesting art.

Not being able to speak to people and find out about them I find myself making up lives for them. At first I was sure the old woman was the overbearing matriarch of the family, and she may well be. She started eating when we got on the train and really didn’t stop for about four hours. Her daughter(?) Kept giving her things and occasionally buying stuff from the vendors who came around. After she stopped eating and found out I was an American (first bit of information everyone asks) she laughed at something that was said, and on the whole, became more pleasant. When she helped me off the train I really appreciated her. I find that old ladies seem to be particularly fascinated with me: how did I get here; how can I be traveling alone; and the big one: how old am I. She didn’t ask, or maybe the English speaker wouldn’t ask me. I’m sorry, because I would have liked to ask her.

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Thursday, October 23

Sunshine today, the sky almost as clear as last night. We finally finished the tour of the museum. Tomorrow we begin all over again. Also, tomorrow I will go to Luoyang to visit the Longmen Grottoes, more Buddhist caves. I spent most of the afternoon preparing for my train trip tomorrow. I wanted more Chinese money so I stopped at a bank that didn’t look too busy. There are almost as many banks here as in New York. There are also atm’s all over. All the banks have different English names: Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Agriculture Bank of China, Bank of Communications, and my favorite, China Citic Bank. That’s not a typo, it neatly sums up how mysterious I find their English language usage.

I walked into the bank and showed my passport and my American dollars. Then the only question was what kind of money I wanted. The VIP in charge of foreign guests, or money changing, or whatever, walked me over to one of the tellers who took passport and money and gave me a form through the money changing slit in the wimdow. I had to print my name once, sign in two places and enter my passport number. The teller examined my bills, then called another man who minutely examined the bills. The teller examined my passport, took it to another person who examined it, then disappeared with it for about 15 minutes. When he returned he made a copy of several of the pages. I think they didn’t do this too often.They put several red stamps of the original of each form, just like on a work of art. Then they gave me the stamped forms and my money after I had passed this extensive scrutiny. The teller finally smiled at me, and I felt like we had almost developed some kind of a relationship.

Subway construction

Subway construction

From the bank I went to a huge bookstore where I hoped to find a Chinese-English phrase book to take with me on my weekend trip. They had some books for Chinese learning English but nothing useful for me. My final stop was back at the TrustMart where I bought food to take on the train.

CCS sponsors an English corner once a week and asks four volunteers to attend each time. They had too many volunteers last time, but this was my turn. There were 12 or 13 Chinese students, adults, each in two groups. Tasha, who is from England, sat with me. The two different accents must have been difficult for the Chinese. Makayla told me the Chinese think American English is like music and British English is like sticks hitting something. Since we seem to enjoy British accents I was quite surprised.

I brought the group a leaflet Renee gave me when I was in New York. It was sent to NYC residents urging them to vote and it’s in four languages: English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. I think they were all impressed. We spent some time talking about the election. Most of them are very interested and want Obama to win. Too bad they can’t vote.

They asked Tasha about the Queen and knew much more about the royal family than I do. We discussed Prince William, Prince Harry and, of couse, Diana.

After the English corner my group went to a Karaoke bar while I spent time working with Robin to keep the computer going. I think I screwed it up again, maybe badly this time. I asked WordPress fo help and got a few suggestions, but I may be back to Robin posting everything.

Additional note on Sunday: So far, one of the suggestions WordPress gave me is working. I just hope this keeps up.

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Calligraphy and Dumplings

Working hard at filling in the characters

Our teacher, Liu Lei, an eminent calligrapher from one of the art schools.

Professor Liu’s work

Eva showing how to make the dumplings

Half of our kitchen. The other half is about 3 feet away.

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