Sunday, September 21, 2008

Goodbye China

I've said my goodbyes, taken in those last bowls of noodles and baskets of dumplings and left China. Suddenly all the little nuisances of Chinese culture and cravings I had for all things western have subsided and I'm in reverse culture shock. This year in China was one of the more valuable experiences in my life and I am taking away with it friendships, a deeper cultural understanding and countless memories. This slide show is from my last little trip through Yunnan in July. I visited the Tibetan town of Zhongdian, or more commonly known as Shangri-La. This is perhaps my favorite place in China with its awesome setting at the edge of the Himalayas, the detailed architecture and the humble and colorful Tibetan people.

I miss you China, but new adventures await and one day I will be back. For anyone who likes to travel, I urge you to visit China and experience the incredible culture, intricate history and vast landscape of this country. It will change you.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Check-up with the Chinese traditional doctor

My friends Angela and Meng Deng have been trying to get pregnant for the past four months. Meng Deng’s mother is a bit overbearing and harasses Angela daily about why she isn’t pregnant yet and what’s wrong with her (typical Chinese mother-in-law behavior). As this harassment induces anxiety, it’s most likely hindering the process.

Angela has turned to a famed Chinese doctor to see if he can help in the fertility department. Supposedly he’s a famous doctor, especially in fertility, and patients come from as far as Shanghai to see him. The first time I saw Angela after she’d taken a dose of the medicine he’d prescribed, she appeared to be in a state of complete relaxation. At the time, I was a bit stressed out with final exams, grading and kindergarten – so I asked if I could come along on her next doctor visit. I was hoping that he could help me relax too.

The next week, I met up with Angela and we walked down numerous small streets and narrow alleys to reach the doctor’s office. We had to arrive two hours earlier than we expected to see him as there are no appointments and he’s quite popular. The “waiting area” is a long, narrow and dark hallway where we squished alongside other patients to wait for our turn. The doctor has two sessions – morning and afternoon. When he breaks for lunch, everyone must wait outside while they sweep the hallway. This leads to a bit of confusion when the afternoon session begins and people get snippy about who’s in front of whom. When the afternoon session began, we scrambled into the doctor’s office to wait our turn. There are about ten seats in the office for the first ten people in line and the rest wait in the hallway. As we’re all sitting there waiting, we get to watch and listen to each patient’s visit.

Angela translated for me, so I could hear each person’s problem and diagnosis. The doctor sits in a chair at a table and facing opposite is his assistant who scribbles out the prescriptions. The patient sits between the two and places their hand palm-up on a little pillow. The doctor feels the patient’s pulse on their wrist with his fingers. In Chinese medicine, it is believed that we have five separate pulses that can be read from the wrist. As the doctor is reading the pulses, he asks questions about her monthly cycle, what she eats and looks at her tongue. He dictates the prescriptions to the assistant and the whole process takes about 5 minutes.

Once the doctor is finished and you get the prescription, you bring it to the other side of the room where there’s a window connecting to the “pharmacy”. Chinese traditional medicine is natural herbs, seeds, parts of trees and animals. The “pharmacist” scoops herbs from different drawers, mixes your concoction of plants together and bags them. The herb cocktail is to be put into boiled water at home, simmered for about 20 minutes and strained into a cup for a nice, dirt-tasting tea taken twice daily. They give you enough for a week, and then you come back for a new prescription each week until you’re feeling better (or pregnant).

The whole shebang costs a mere 2 RMB for the appointment (about 25 cents) and 40 RMB for the medicine (about 6 USD).

I took the medicinal tea for the full week and noticed that I did feel slightly more relaxed than before. I decided not to return as it was so time consuming, but did accompany Angela yesterday for her weekly visit to take some pictures and keep her company while she and her mother waited. Angela has been visiting the doctor for 6 weeks now and no baby yet, but she is confident that the medicine is helping.

Angela and her mother

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Saying goodbye to my babies


It's the rainy season in China. Last night a downpour began and continued through this afternoon. Kunming doesn't have a good drainage system and it caused a flash flood - especially in the little plaza of the International Business School which is out the front door of our building. While university classes were cancelled this morning, it was my last day of teaching kindergarten and all the parents were coming to watch, so I had to forage through the city's flood in my flip flops.

It was difficult saying goodbye to the children today. Besides Chinese food, the thing I will miss most about this place is the beautiful kindergarten children that I have taught this year. Here are some pictures of the last day. As you can see, Chinese learn the peace sign picture pose at an early age.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Now tell me what you really think

Yes, I know - it's been a long time since my last post. This month has been a whirl of final exams, goodbye dinners, mixed emotions and summer rain, so I have been neglecting the blog.

But I'm back! And plan to share my last thoughts on China and my experience here. I'll also be traveling to northern Yunnan and Hong Kong in the next three weeks, so I will share my travels and photos from these places as well.

However, this post is a tribute to my university students. The photos are from one of my writing classes - I quickly snapped them this morning on our last class together. The last part of this semester I have shown documentaries and movies on a number of controversial and thought provoking subjects. The students final exams reflect their own takes on these subjects and their observations are quite interesting - some shocking, some typical Chinese, some quite revolutionary for Chinese and some just plain cute. So here are some of my favorite passages:

"In my opinion, the greatest problem that China faces today is Taiwan's independence. In 1997, Hong Kong came back to the motherland, but Taiwan hasn't yet. So I think our Chinese must make Taiwan come back as soon as possible."

"I think over-population is the greatest problem that China faces today. Many people think more people will bring a warm feeling, like family, but they forget that all accidents are made by people."

"Compared with humans, ants are very small, but they have a unique spirit that is working together. We have never seen ants in a mess."

"No matter how hard the difficulties we face now, we Chinese have shown our belief to the world. We are not a gentle sheep which can be beaten down easily!"

"Our imagination is important. It's just like a kind of power to do something we really want to do. No matter what you imagine about, no matter if it's true or not, big or small, no matter if the result is good or bad, you believe it. That's the point!"

"In the 1960's -70's in America, the youth were allowed to talk freely and were very open. On the contrary, Chinese youth were not open at all. Maybe they hoped to become free men, but they didn't dare to express it."

"China faces a huge challenge. As China becomes stronger, lots of developed countries want to stop her. And within China there is no peace."

"Sex has no freedom in China. Some people are shy when they talk about sex, but the other ones go out and find body-service. But a lot of women only make love with her husband her whole life."

"I support sexual freedom, because maybe someone will say a girl is not pure if she is not a virgin. But think about it, maybe the girl gave her first night to her ex-boyfriend."

"In the city, we can see many people have a car and house, however in the other places, many can't get enough to eat and are using old tools. They have a little knowledge even though they can't write. The 2008 Olympic Games will be held in Beijing. We must use this chance to change our country. Our government must work to help people live better lives."

"Nowadays, more and more people think that people who have good jobs and possess money are the real persons; their lives are real and they are to be respected. Of course we all expect to have a comfortable life where we can do what we want to. However, not everyone can reach it. Many people work hard everyday, but they are still poor. But in my opinion, I think everyone is great as everyone has their own task, acting many roles, and having confidence in life. That's enough - even if it isn't so wonderful, it's real."

"The date of the Olympics is closer. We must face a lot of problems and solve them. After the earthquake, I saw the power of our government and our citizens. Maybe there will be more disasters waiting for us, but I absolutely believe in our government."

"In this world, many countries and many people don't know much about China. They don't know its history and its culture. And they don't like China. So we must develop our economy and let them know more about China and change their minds."

"In April, such a serious thing happened in Tibet. People want independence from China and they killed a lot of men, children and women. They killed Chinese heart."

"Just by succeeding in the Olympic Games, these dead people from the earthquake can feel and get happiness."

"If we don't treasure our life, one day in the future we will destroy the world by ourselves. So we should protect all life, no matter how small."

"I have seen some people say sweet words to their boss and smile at them, then go to the bathroom and yell at the cleaners and walk away. Some girls tell other girls, 'you look beautiful, your dress is fabulous,' but when they look at other girls they'll say, 'you are fat and dirty, your hair is dirty and your dress old fashioned.' This is so wrong. We should trust everyone, respect them and let them feel they are somebody and not nobody."

"In my grandmother's words, in her youth she had no clothes to wear in summer and just wore a light shirt which had been worn by her sister. What's worse, her entertainment was feeding the pigs in the early morning."

"As a developing country and the host of the 2008 Olympics, China has a variety of pressures from other countries. As I know, these countries wonder whether China can be a suitable host for the Olympics because most Olympics were held by developed countries before. What's more, if China holds the Olympics successfully, that means China could become stronger and that makes other countries nervous, naturally. So these countries put many pressures and even mild destruction on China which are aimed at making the Olympics fail in China."

"After watching 'Sex and the City' I realized some differences between Chinese and American people. Sometimes, maybe American people think a one night stand is a good way to feel the freedom, but as a Chinese I don't think so."

"I think, as a developing country, the greatest problem of China is pollution, and the main reason is private cars. Private cars should be discouraged by the government. As far as the great demand for means of transport is concerned, we can develop mass transit to take the place of private cars."

"Let's take action together and create a fresh environment, or we will be punished by nature."

"I think China must change its education system so that we not only care about exam scores, but also care about the students' interests and their hobbies. We can study some developed countries' educational systems and let our students have a happy childhood."

"In reality, dishonesty is very bad. The earthquake in Sichuan province proved that. A lot of buildings were destroyed and most of them were hospitals or schools and a lot of children died. That's very sad to talk about, but we have to face the truth. The end to cheating is cheating ourselves, so improving citizens' awareness in the greatest problem that China faces today."

"I think China's greatest problem is that not every Chinese wants to get together and create our future. Some guys from Tibet and Taiwan want to be independent from China. The Dalai and Chen Shui-Bian are guilty to China and they don't want China to become stronger. So we face the big problem of policy and bad men."

"Our country's policy only pays attention to people who have ability and knowledge. So the people who have high education become more and more rich and the people who have low education become more and more poor. Adding the large population of our country, the problem becomes worse. The situation of this problem is so dangerous to the development of our country."

"Chinese culture is not popular in China, it is very strange! But some foreign people can know the history of Chinese culture when they study Chinese in China and they use our culture to make money! So we must protect our Chinese culture and develop it, because our history is 5000 years long!"

"In the 1960's, American was crazy. The young people worshiped rock singers and they were crazy. They sung badly and I feel the songs teach young people bad things. More and more people were studying these singers and copying their bad hair and clothes."

"Many terrible things have happened just until now and we don't know what will happen tomorrow. What we fear is not other countries and some evil power who wants to break up our country. Natural disasters are our biggest problems and what really make us afraid. So shouldn't we Chinese think over what on earth we did and what we're still doing to cause this? Absolutely, it must be that we did something wrong to nature. So it's time for us to wake up and correct our mistakes."

"Cheating is a serious problem in China. I think it results from Chinese traditional educational system. No matter in school, the office or in society, cheating and exams goes hand in hand. Everyone can see it, but no one can stop it. If we don't care about it, our country cannot develop."

"China loves peace. But some countries and governments don't like China and they try their best to disturb our development. We don't even worry about that. We believe that peace will conquer!"

"Nowadays, communists have given up the inner-battle and they make efforts to develop Chinese economy to help ourselves stand up again from ruins. With the development of China, a lot of inside problems and international problems come to us, for example, western countries always criticize Chinese human rights and government, environmental problems, production problems and frontier problems. I often have the feeling that the world is criticizing us for Taiwan and Hong Kong. So stand up again China, we must face the problem. Best wishes to my motherland."

"Marriage is like a divide, from now on, you should be loyal to your partner. But I don't think we should regard sexual acts before marriage as a crime or immoral. What's more, I believe in an equal society, so if a man can regard sexual acts as a limitation to women, then women can think the same of men."

"I think that morality is more important than sexual freedom, because you can't play with everyone. When I am making love with my girlfriend, I know the difference between 'making love' and 'having fun'."

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

And finally... Beijing Part III

The highlight of my trip to Beijing was a visit to the famed Great Wall. Started in the 5th Century B.C. (though little of that section remains) and stretching 6,400 km across northern China, 3 million Chinese died in the construction – most of whose bodies were buried in the wall itself. I wanted a meaningful and Chinese-tour-group-with-matching-red-hats free experience, so I headed to a more secluded section of the wall in Jinshanling, which is actually in Hebei province and a three-hour bus ride from Beijing. I knew the trip was well worth the extra road time when I first glimpsed the loom of the wall’s haphazard-seeming span across the mountains we were quickly approaching.

My first step on the Great Wall of China felt like I was stepping onto a fantastical emblem of the nation’s venerable history. From Jinshanling, it’s possible to hike 10 km along the wall to another proper viewing site in Simitai. The journey was a tough hike as parts of the wall rose practically vertical up the sides of the mountains, and at times felt a bit precarious as large sections have been left wholly unaltered from their crumbling state. As some points, I could see the wall’s tremendous expanse winding it’s way into oblivion – forming small dots on the horizon. And my desire for seclusion was granted with few others making the same journey that day. The pictures don’t do the mighty and great wall justice, but do give an idea of the grandeur that I experienced.

For my last morning in Beijing, I explored the Forbidden City. Not leaving myself enough time, I took in what I could and soaked in the opulence and spaciousness of previous emperors’ needs. And while little gold plaques identify each quarters, it’s difficult to fathom the relative function of such extravagance and the exclusivity of these chambers.

Lately it’s been difficult to take my mind off the devastating earthquake in Sichuan and all the people’s lives that are affected. So many deaths and many more left homeless who are either camping out in the streets or fleeing to other provinces for work. The silver lining to this tragedy is the overwhelming response of locals. It’s heartening to see a nation whose people normally ignore the needs of strangers and reserve their compassion for loved ones, expressing their sympathies in genuine ways – not just in Sichuan, but across the nation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Beijing - Part II

My first night in Beijing I discovered the “western” area of the city. I was a bit disturbed to see so many American chain restaurants – especially when I walked past a Hooters. It was embarrassing to see this infiltration of such tasteless, corporate crap. Though I must admit that I did fold under the temptation of Starbucks. While I try to boycott the chain back home, a genuine frappachino was too tempting, despite the ridiculously high price. There are probably more Starbucks franchises in Beijing than in New York City. I was relieved to see that they had done away with the controversial Starbucks in the Forbidden City, but did get a report from another hostel guest that you can order steaming hot Starbucks lattes on the Great Wall from the section that’s most heavily visited. Yeah, pretty disgusting. Other major chain restaurants that have found their way to the Chinese capital include Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays, Subway and of course countless KFC and McDonald's franchises. The Chinese love them some fried chicken!

For my second day in Beijing, my feet were so tired from traversing the spread-out city streets, that I decided it was time to attempt the subway. While the lines aren’t too extensive, they are building more as we speak to accommodate the influx of tourists this summer for the Olympics. First stop – the Lama Temple, a beautiful and ornate temple and the largest one outside of Tibet. Lately the Chinese media has been using it as “proof” that Tibet has “always been a part of China”. Unfortunately, what should have been a spiritual and peaceful experience, a big tour group of Spaniards who had recently adopted Chinese babies were running around the grounds shouting in Spanish and blocking all the temple entrances with their giant strollers. It dawned on me that Chinese people don’t use strollers. Everyone carries their babies either in their arms or wrap them snugly to their backs. With babies always snuggled tight against their mothers, you hardly hear a baby crying in China.

I set aside the afternoon to explore Factory 798. Located outside the city’s third ring road in the industrial area, old and abandoned factory buildings have been renovated to house dozens of art galleries, studios and funky cafes. Once I actually found the place, it was like stepping into another world. The retro industrial vibe complete with graffiti brick walls and hipster Beijingites was a refreshing experience. As with most Chinese cities I’ve been to, you really have to dig deep to find the artsy communities that stray from the shiny and new of today’s China. While traditional arts and antiques are widely valued throughout the country, the modern art scene is still struggling to find its place. I was blown away by the diversity, originality and quality of the work displayed throughout the various galleries I visited that day. However, despite this departure from the typical Chinese experience, it was not void of camera happy people who insisted on photographing their friends in front of every painting or sculpture available, completely ignoring the “no photography” signs posted on every wall. It’s like every Chinese wants their chance at becoming China’s Next Top Model.

Stay tuned for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall…