Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

2011 was . . . wow, even I am at a loss as to how to describe it.  I think this is the best I can do:  2011 was a bipolar teenage female year having a very rough, long menstrual cycle and occasionally getting drunk or taking mind-altering anti-psychotic medications in order to cope with it, and also battling numerous authority issues.  Yup, that about sums up 2011.

History students will one day study this year -- actually, my history students will study it for a little while when they return to school at the end of January!  It was the year of protests, revolutions, scandals, dead despots, and the world media's obsession with Pippa Middleton's rear end.  I don't have space for all of the events that took place, but here were just a few that captured my attention:

  • The US finally got Bin Laden.  Now I am not a person who rejoices in death of anyone, but here I had to make an exception.  That man was evil.  I don't care that another will just rise up to take his place; Bin Laden had a special kind of dreadful hate about him, and I cheered when I read that he was gone from the world at last.  I still have nightmares sometimes about September 11 -- that day will likely haunt me for the rest of my life, and I didn't even lose anyone that day.  I cannot forget the horrible, wrenching fear that gripped us all that day and the days that followed.  My teenage journal records all the sleepless nights I spent as a high-schooler, convinced that we were headed for World War III.
  • The Arab Spring.  It was like a game of Middle Eastern dominoes, with revolutions breaking out right and left and Twitter and Facebook suddenly playing a role that their creators never imagined.  I hope and pray that the new governments will do better by their people than the old, but . . . I am not holding my breath.
  • The deaths of Qaddafi and Kim.  Two more evil men, both of whom had hands and hearts so blackened with blood and corruption that they almost ceased to be human. Others will take their places, sadly.  Especially in the case of North Korea, winter is far from over.
  • A whole bunch of people throughout the US got really mad, had no common goals/aims/ideologies, and decided to riot and basically make lawless pests of themselves.  I'm sorry -- I just can't take the "Occupy" protesters seriously.  Change is not brought about by neglecting your responsibilities, shouting, waving signs (several of them with abominably bad spelling, by the way), and trying to goad the police into using gas.  What takes place when those protesters gather is nothing grander than small-scale anarchy -- it's like a bunch of overgrown toddlers throwing tantrums because Mommy won't let them breastfeed anymore.  Yes, change needs to happen, though I am certain I disagree with most of the protesters as to exactly what type of change is necessary.  There is certainly a better way to bring it about.

2011 was a big year in my personal life as well.  I really have no historical significance at all, although I do like to hope that I at least brighten whatever corner I happen to be in (I do try, anyway).  However, since this is MY blog, I'm going to indulge in mild narcissism and review some of the big events that happened to me this year:
  • I brought in 2011 with no clear idea of what my future held, other than that I was pretty sure God was ignoring my wishes and calling me back to the classroom.  After the Manasses experience, I had sworn off ever teaching again.  Fortunately, God knows what's best for me and never listens to my feeble protests (to be fair, He does make the journey very pleasant once I stop kicking and screaming).  It was not until February that I became aware that I was likely headed back overseas in my future -- and even then, I confess that I had plenty of doubts.  I had two dogs, tons of furniture, and a car -- how could I possibly leave the USA?
  • I fought the War of the Thesis.  It was bloody, exhausting, fraught with danger and difficulty, plus the CIA tried to reclassify a large portion of the documents that I needed.  At several points, both my thesis chair and I believed that the thing would never be written.  I had nightmares about showing up to my defense with nothing to defend.  I even wrote a short story about my thesis becoming self-aware, coming to life, and trying to kill me.  On April 23, just a few months after I started, I was able to write on this blog, "As of 10:00 am today, the horrible, monstrous, insidious, ill-formed offspring of my feeble mind, also known as my thesis, which has plagued me like a host of ten thousand camels tap-dancing on my shoulders in combat boots, is finally written."  On May 2, I defended the monster and passed with flying colors!  In the same vein, I graduated on May 13 with my Master of Arts degree in history, having completed it in a year and a half, and finishing with High Distinction (solid 4.0).  That's pretty much the biggest achievement in my 27 years of life.
  • There was, of course, the car accident on May 6.  A distracted young driver hit me head-on on a mountain road.  She is now trying to push a claim against me.  Ah, irresponsible, greedy Americans -- how they warm the heart.
  • I moved to China!  It was by far the biggest decision of my life, but once I made it, I never doubted that it was the right choice (even though my family thought I was nuts -- they usually do, so I lovingly ignored them).  Since leaving in late July, I have found a degree of happiness and contentment that I previously could never have imagined.  I teach at a fantastic school with the finest group of educators I have ever met, and my students are a brilliant and witty ensemble of pure awesomeness. I don't have a single student that I would like to lead to the guillotine!  I occasionally indulge in the mental image of bopping one or two of them, but on the whole, I love 'em all!  I also have had my heart completely stolen away by China -- who would ever have foreseen it?
  • My mom got sick.  This was, for me, probably the most difficult thing to get through in 2011.  She's doing all right now, but for a while, she had me pretty terrified.  It's really tough to grapple with sick relatives and not be able to do anything for them because you're thousands of miles away.
  • I wound up on this surprise extended journey in Korea, all because of an obstinate ankle that refuses to behave.

And so, I face 2012 with a lot less uncertainty than I faced 2011 (for one thing, I have THE BEST JOB EVER! and for another, I don't have to worry about whether or not I can actually write a thesis).  As I enter another year, I do have a few questions on my mind:
  • Will I start the new year with an operation?
  • When do I get to leave Korea and go back to China (not that Korea isn't a great country, but China is home)?
  • Will Kim Jong-Un be as evil as his father?  What will happen here in Asia because of him?
  • How will I ever get this bloodsucking reckless driver off my back?  Doesn't she realize that I'm as good as a pauper?!
  • How soon is too soon to give my freshmen a pop quiz next semester?
  • Being out of sight, is it only a matter of time before I'm out of mind for the people I left behind in the USA?  Has it already happened with some?
  • How can I better brighten my corner?  Am I doing enough?

Farewell, 2011!  Welcome into the world, 2012!
And a happy New Year to everyone!

"No Unnecessary Walking"

The doctor said "no unnecessary walking".

I am not a good patient.  When a doctor tells me to rest and drink lots of fluids, I go to work instead (but I do increase my coffee intake -- hey, coffee is a fluid!).  Actually, I don't even go to the doctor for most illnesses.  I follow the example set by my mother and wait until it's bronchitis or plague.  I'm a Thompson -- we're tough!  (And stubborn, and accident-prone . . . ).  When I sprain my ankle, I often don't bother to ice it (but I do wrap and elevate . . . and then walk on it).  I never finish antibiotics -- I stop when the symptoms stop or when I just plain forget to take them.  Yes, thanks to that habit, I will probably be one of those people who die of antibiotic-resistant ear infection someday.  When I had my wisdom teeth removed, I pulled out my own stitches -- and the pain was a lot more bearable after I did so.  I don't read all the warnings on medication.  I don't measure out my cough syrup -- I just take a big gulp from the bottle when I feel like I need it.  I never stay on crutches as long as I'm supposed to.

Yes, I am a very, very bad patient.  A patient with no patience for being a patient, in fact.  Which, coupled with chronic badluckitus, is not a good combination.  Not at all.  I am very often a patient, and I seldom listen to all the directions.

I really am trying to be a good patient right now.  I'm trying not to walk . . . but not walking is BORING!  I watched a Chinese soap opera with Korean subtitles today (I understood about 10% of what was said and absolutely none of the subtitles).  I studied my Chinese characters.  I played Sparkle on my iPad.  I threw a rope for my friend's dog.  I did laundry.  I planned writing assignments for my sophomores and my freshmen (mwa ha ha).  I practiced my epitome-of-evil-supervillain-history-teacher laugh.  I tried not to think about how much I really wanted a long walk . . . even in freezing-beyond-belief, so-cold-that-your-eyeballs-turn-to-iceballs Seoul.  Occasionally, I cast hate-filled glances at my ankle and talked aloud of amputation (the ankle heard me.  I don't care if it doesn't have ears).

Four more days until I return to the hospital for more tests.  Four more days of being a good patient. . . . You know, I wouldn't mind taking a cross-country trip to Jinju again . . . maybe walk around that castle for a few hours?

Okay, fine.  I'll go find another Chinese soap opera with Korean subtitles.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bad News, Bad News, and Good News

Okay, good news first:  According to the doctor whom I saw at the hospital today, I'm not just imagining things -- there actually is something wrong with me!  (Yes, this is good news.  Few things are as annoying as pain or other symptoms with a cause that a doctor cannot locate.)

The first bad news:  My ankle is worse off than I thought.  I thought that I just had a stretched ligament, from all of the sprains I've had over the past nine years.  Wrong!  Apparently, somewhere down the road, I managed to tear that ligament.  And, there is a problem with my leg that I never knew about (the muscle has had damage and weakening owing to the ankle problems, and it is in turn contributing to the ankle problems).  I wound up being at the hospital until about 3:00 today, and in addition to my two doctor appointments, also squeezed in a radiology visit.  Thank goodness I have really good insurance now!

The second bad news:  I have to stay in Korea a bit longer than planned, because I need to do more testing to determine what is to be done with me.  I definitely have to have physical therapy, both for the ankle and for the leg, but I also am probably going to wind up having surgery.  I'll find out for sure after some more testing and related mafan on the 4th of January.  Until then, the doctor warned me "No unnecessary walking."  Not sure what that means, in a country (continent, actually) where one walks just about everywhere, but I guess that means no more cross-country trips this week.  Good thing I did Gyeongju yesterday!

Stephanie Returns to Gyeongju

Yesterday, I stood in the exact same spot where I had stood three years ago.  Actually, I probably stood in a lot of the same spots where I was three years ago.  Sadly, a lot of things have changed since then.  I was hoping to prove Daphne du Maurier wrong for once, but she really was uncannily correct when she wrote, "We can never go back to Manderly."

I flew into Korea on the 27th, and since this voyage is mostly for the purpose of having my bad ankle finally tended to, I opted to go down to Gyeongju on the 28th, before any doctor had the chance to tell me to stay off my ankle.  They've gotten a high speed train down there since I was there, which means that it now takes just a little over two hours to go from the top of Korea to near the bottom (i.e. Seoul to Gyeongju).

I won't lie -- I was feeling pretty sappy and emotional about going back for a visit.  I had eager plans to surprise Cate, my wonderful former boss.  I thought there might be a chance of even running into former students, though they would have grown quite a bit since I saw them last.  That year that I spent there in Gyeongju was one of the most foundational years of my life -- it was the year that I went from being a pathetic, broken shell of a human being (2006 and 2007 were not kind to me), took back the reins, and grew into a person I could feel confident being.  I had a lot of spiritual growth during that year, too.

I anticipated that Gyeongju would not be exactly the same as I left it -- after all, Korea changes incredibly quickly.  I just didn't count on one very sad change . . .

English World is gone.  The small, successful hagwon (academy) where I worked for that lovely year has left without a trace.  Perhaps it failed during the economic hardships that have struck the world, or perhaps Cate just grew tired of the stress of running it.  I have no idea where she is now -- English World was the only link to finding her.  In its place is a completely different business now, and the building, though fundamentally the same, is also changed.

I walked all around the city, ignoring the protests from my ankle, marveling at what had changed and what had stayed the same.  Many of the stores I patronized are still there, even the dinky little Hello Kitty store where I used to buy stationary.  The coffee place that I loved most is now a different type of restaurant, though the outer decor of the building is the same.  I found the spot downtown where I fell and sprained my bad ankle during my first month in Korea, and avoided a repeat.  I chuckled when I crossed the street at the same crosswalk where the infamous pears-down-the-shirt incident took place.  I avoided slipping on the curb where I tumbled off my bike one morning, and I gave a friendly wave to the tomb that I used to pass each day on my way to English World.  I stopped at the "fish cookie lady's" stand to buy the treat that I used to love -- and she misunderstood my request for two cookies, made me buy a whole bag instead, and yelled at me.  A creepy guy tried to get me to share his sausage-on-a-stick.  He did not stir any sentimental memories for me.

In the end, between all of the cross-country travel, I only spent about 4 hours back in Gyeongju.  And, honestly, those four hours were a bit disappointing -- no joyous reunions, the "fish cookie lady" has turned mean and senile, and the foreign friends have all gone on to other places.  Nevertheless, I'm glad I had the chance to go back for a day.  The last time I was there, I really thought it was the last time.  It was nice to be wrong.

And to Cate, wherever she may be now:  Thanks for a wonderful year, and for being one of the best bosses I ever worked for.  I'll never forget all of your kindness to me.

Keeping Christmas in China

This year was my first Christmas in China, and I am happy to say that it was suitably special.  I opted for a four-day-long observance of the holiday, since it is, after all, my favorite holiday (yup, I'm corny that way).

On the 23rd, I kicked off my festivities by inviting some of my closest Chinese friends (and a couple of American friends) over for a traditional Midwestern dinner and my favorite Christmas movie -- It's a Wonderful Life.  I made a really simple chicken casserole, which my Chinese friends loved, to my relief (I always worry that they won't like our buttery western foods, but they always surprise me).  The movie was even more meaningful than usual, likely because I had to explain quite a bit of it to my friends.  I got to see it from their perspective, and I realized that it really is a film of universal truths.

I was invited to quite a few festivities on Christmas Eve, but after a wonderful-but-exhausting semester of school, I really just wanted a lazy day to myself.  So, I spent the entire day in my pajamas, watching movies and playing Age of Empires (I am proud to say that Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth, Ivan the Terrible, and Queen Isabella were all soundly defeated).  I slept in far later than any adult should (I think it was about 11:00 when I finally got up!) and I ate decidedly unhealthy junk food.  It was just the tonic I needed, especially after all the stress from finals -- my students think they have it tough, but they don't realize how painful the grading process can be!

Christmas was really unique.  I mean, really, really unique.  I enjoyed a traditional English Christmas, complete with turkey and crackers (the kind that explode and have goodies inside, not the kind that one eats with cheese).  I celebrated with a few British friends, a sweet Finnish gal, two fellow Americans, and several new Chinese friends.  We had a riotous game of multi-lingual charades after dinner.  One of the highlights was me pretending to be a watermelon.  Another wonderful moment was watching someone else act out a very energetic octopus.

On Boxing Day, my last full day in China before departing for my trip to Korea, I had a wonderful stew dinner with several other foreigners.  It was like an evening spent with family -- the kind of family that one likes belonging to, not the kind that binds and gags.

I hope you all had lovely Christmases, too, readers!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

This Past Month . . .

For the sake of relatives whom I have not, perhaps, done well at calling or otherwise communicating with (although, to be fair, that is a two-way street -- you relatives could email me once in a while, you know!) and readers who may have wondered why I didn't blog for nearly a month, here is a summary of what's gone on this past month:

  • My VPN stopped working and a multitude of other technological problems/frustrations took place.  Hence, no access to my blog for weeks.
  • I tried out multiple types of (PAINFUL) Chinese medicine on my bad ankle, and finally decided to bite the bullet and look into surgery.  So, I'm heading to Korea in ten days, with the main purpose of the trip being to see a doctor.  Perhaps if we fix this ankle, I might be less clumsy!  (Or just find another body part to keep injuring.)
  • I got put in charge of designing/planning a game for our entire high school, which we'll do next week.  Needless to say, the game involves spies. ☺
  • I was coerced into eating another type of fish.  It wasn't horrible, so long as I kept my mind off of what I was eating.
  • I got lost trying to cut through the hospital to get to a bus stop and wound up in a maternity ward.  (To be fair, that hospital is MUCH bigger than it looks at first glance.)
  • I was introduced to three more fruits that I have never heard of before (which do not, to my knowledge, have English names).  All three, by the way, were quite tasty.
  • I accidentally taught moderately offensive English slang to a group of Chinese friends.
  • I got to relive part of my thesis research by teaching my sophomores about the Ottoman Empire.
  • I had my first experience with a Chinese tailor:  After doing a spectacular free-fall down the front steps of one of the buildings at school, I tore my only pair of black slacks (and skinned up my knees, naturally).  The tailor not only completely repaired the large hole in one day, but also did it for less than a dollar!  I only wish knees could be repaired so promptly!
  • I discovered that, contrary to the beliefs of several friends and students, a stapler CAN in fact be used to successfully repair a severely torn backpack.
  • It snowed a few times -- and very graciously all melted within the same days that it fell.

I'm Alive! -- Just Weary. Very, Very Weary.

I wonder, is it possible for a teacher to get Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the week before final exams?  If so, I am definitely a casualty.

Honestly, it shouldn't have been that stressful of a week.  I had no teaching to do, for one thing (let me clarify that statement by reassuring all my readers that I do, in fact, love teaching).  All I had to do, initially, was spend the week reviewing with my students so that they could go forth and do well on their final exam on Friday.  Should have been an easy week, right?


Remember back in May when that irresponsible twenty-year-old wasn't paying attention, was driving in the middle of the road, and managed to hit my car head-on on a mountain road?  I decided to behave in accordance with my Christian worldview and didn't sue, even though I had ample grounds for it.  After all, I was injured:  internal bleeding, concussion, whiplash, massive bruising, worsening migraines . . . and let's not forget the psychological impact, either.  I have not driven a car even once since May 6 -- and I don't want to.  I still have nightmares about the crash.  I still relive the fear, emotion, tension, etc. every time that I recall the crash or look at the photos.  As much as I may strive to stay in control and sensible, that crash really shook me up.

I bring this up, because it's all back in the forefront of my mind:  The woman who hit me (who was AT FAULT) had the audacity and greed file a claim against me.  I spent last weekend writing a seven-page account of the accident, which I sent, along with photos, to the insurance companies involved.  Two more emails from them followed, hounding and harassing me for details and documents that I simply do not have.  This, readers, is just one example of what is wrong with the United States.  Victims don't have rights.  The person who caused that accident, who is to blame for my injuries and etc., gets to continue to intrude into my life six months later.  She can waste time and money of others with . . . you know what; I am going to cut this rant off right here.  Suffice to say, I am pretty irritated.

On Wednesday, my stress was up the wazoo, what with the emails and other mafan from this legal hassle.  I barely slept that night, with the result that on Thursday I had my worst migraine in months.  I went into school an hour late, hoping an extra hour of sleep would help, but it did no good.  On the bright side, I did get to practice nearly all of my Chinese vocabulary from lesson 8, as the taxi driver had no idea how to get to our school (even after calling and talking to our receptionist) and I had to direct him most of the way.  Unfortunately, I had to fight nausea and vertigo the entire day, not to mention being in excruciating pain.  Ordinarily, I would have called in sick under circumstances like that, but with my freshmen taking their final the very next day, I was worried that they wouldn't do well without a final review day with me.  I figured that one day of suffering for me was worth it if it helped them do better on a test that is worth 20% of their total semester grade.

Friday dawned a better day, I am glad to say.  I had some great encouragement from some Chinese friends, my secret santa left me another in a line of wonderful gifts (a fuzzy blanket that just begs for hot chocolate and a good book), and our principal gave me a good pep talk.  With my students all taking their finals together in the lunchroom, I had most of the schoolday to myself, so I could do some planning and tackle a bit of grading.  I had the chance to check out the middle school science fair and get an idea of the sort of students I'll be having in the next few years (some good prospects, I think).  I was particularly looking forward to seeing the project done by a coworker's daughter:  this incredibly creative young girl gave spiders drugs (alcohol, sleeping pills, and caffeine) to see how it impacted their ability to spin webs.  Now that is a student that I want in my class!  (So long as she doesn't bring spiders to class, of course -- those things are definitely the spawn of Satan.)

Yay Duck and Yuck Duck scores from this week:

Yay Duck:  My freshmen did an AWESOME job on their huge history project -- they completely blew me away!  My Chinese lessons are still going really well.  I was finally able to get a new adaptor for my Mac, so I no longer have a dead computer.  I leave for Korea in ten days!  The semester is, for all practical purposes, over!

Yuck Duck:  The legal mess from the US (hey, that rhymes!).  I've had the same migraine, off and on, since Wednesday night.  The semester is, for all practical purposes, over.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Facing Fears and Receiving Bows

Aside from the rampant internet problems that continue to prevent me from being able to call my family, the past few days were full of milestones and memorable moments.  Yay Duck really got a workout this week!

On Thursday, I summoned all available courage and, feeling not unlike a Renaissance traveler facing the Ottoman Turks, went to a Chinese dentist for the first time.  I am privileged to work at a school that has its own dental office just down the hall from my classroom, and after suffering for quite a while from what I believed to be a cracked filling, I decided to take advantage of the free dental care provided to me as a teacher.  I really had no reason to be afraid, as I soon learned.  Our school dentist spent much of her life in Iowa, so she speaks excellent English.  Additionally, she is definitely the best dentist I have ever visited:  incredibly kind, soothing, and capable.  As it turned out, I had a cavity rather than a filling problem, and it was quite large owing to my inability to afford a dentist for the past three years (I had no insurance during that time).  Dr. Li numbed me quite nicely, drilled out the decay, and gave me a filling that is so well done that it cannot be distinguished from the actual tooth -- and she got it all done in time for me to go teach my freshman Ancient World History class!  Other than having one side of my face numb (my freshies were quite sympathetic), I was just fine!  At lunch, which came next, I unfortunately chomped up my lip pretty well owing to not being able to feel it, much to the amused sympathy of the friends I was eating with.

After school on Thursday, I had a wonderful evening with some very dear Chinese friends who had me over for dinner.  I particularly enjoyed playing several games of "poker" with one of my favorite little girls in the world (the daughter of a friend; I also teach English to this bubbly smartie as sort of a sideline activity).

On Friday, I had an only slightly less fear-inspiring moment than facing the dentist:  I faced a dictation test from my Chinese teacher.  Despite coming right on the heals of a vocabulary test (yes, dear Jackie gave me TWO tests in ONE day!), I managed to write all of the characters correctly . . . well, aside from messing up a bit on stroke order (I really didn't care -- I was too ecstatic about actually remembering how to write the characters).  Oh, and I also got 100% on my vocabulary test. ☺

Earlier in the day on Friday, I had one of those special "I really love my freshmen" moments (I have these frequently):  We had an assembly earlier in the day where one of our school counselors discussed cultural integration and cultural politeness with the students.  He finished by having some teachers and students show how to properly greet one another according to our different cultures here at the school (our student body is about 80% Korean, 20% assorted other cultures, and then our faculty is a mix of Chinese, Korean, American, Filipino, South African, Indian, Australian, Finish, Malaysian, etc.).  When I went into my classroom after lunch, a mob of my freshies were waiting for me at the front of the classroom.  They promptly bowed to me and said "Annyong haseyo" in eager, smiling unison.  How cute is that?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The End-of-the-Day Bus Ballet

At the end of each school day, as we teachers embark on the journey home, we are treated to a special show:  "The Dance of the School Buses".  On some days, it is a short performance, with only a few students nearly being flattened and some intermittent horn-honking.  Other days, we are witness to five or more buses all determined to enter the school gates simultaneously, while at least ten other vehicles block them (with musical accompaniment from several shouting guards, a few bystanders, and an irritated policeman).  One Friday, however . . .

The ballet opens with a backdrop of a gloomy, rainy day at the school campus.  Our heroine, Stephanie, spectacularly avoids injury while darting down slippery steps and even-more-slippery path, convinced she is about to miss the bus (having been somewhat distracted by melancholy reflections on her poor performance on a Chinese dictation quiz minutes earlier).  Off to stage right, a chorus of jacket-clad children frolic on playground equipment, oblivious to the rain.  Off to stage left are more buildings, with assorted extras scattered hither and thither.

As Stephanie nears the buses, she becomes immediately aware that, regardless of whether or not she moves in time, bus #8 is going to back off the drive and into the grass . . . where she is presently standing.  Whilst hopping out of the path of bus #8, Stephanie nearly encounters bus #5, also intent on backing up into the grass (and possibly into bus #8 as well).  The guard, who is one of the focal figures in this scene, darts to and fro amongst buses, somehow avoiding getting hit.  It is CRUCIAL that each bus driver initially ignore him -- this is all part of the dance.

A chorus-line of cars in varying colors now approaches, completely blocking any buses from exiting the gate.  Although there is absolutely no room for them, a chorus-line of construction vehicles joins the cars, gracefully weaving in between one another at rapid speed in death-defying fashion.  It is CRUCIAL that each vehicle come within at least one and a half inches of one another -- this, too, is all part of the dance.

Teachers and students, standing wherever they can fit (all nicely warmed by the buses that are never more than six inches from their bodies), now flock onto the buses in musically disorganized fashion.  There are, naturally, fewer seats than there are people.  Rearrangement of some of the passengers takes place, while, simultaneously, the guard continues to dart about between buses, the horn symphony plays background music, and the far-more-vehicles-than-any-sane-person-would-ever-cram-into-one-area continue to interweave -- right wear Stephanie's bus is determined to go.

The uneven, potholed dirt road, complete with lose stones, is now nearly as crowded as Black Friday at Best Buy.  A choir of shouting people add to the festivity of the scene.  Every vehicle moves at once, some in the same direction (mere coincidence), and most in opposite directions.  Our heroine bravely digs her long fingernails into her thigh as a defense mechanism against panic (until you have witnessed this bus-ballet in person, it is impossible to grasp the intensity of it).

At 4:48, the 3:45 bus at last makes it off the dirt drive and onto the main road.  Stephanie releases a breath that she has been holding since 3:46.

Pictures from Weifang (courtesy of Kathryn)

Memorial to Eric Liddell, who died in the
concentration camp that is now a park.
This gorgeous archway opens into what was once a concentration camp.

Kathryn, my closest non-Chinese friend here in the "Middle Kingdom"

This place is so enchanting that I am convinced dragons must live there.

Doing my best "Chinese pose" in the archway.

Even with the algae, I still thought this spot was pretty.

Paths like this one demand to be walked down.

Memorial to those who were imprisoned at the concentration camp.

This canopy was overhead on one of the many paths through Liddell Park.

The base of the memorial, listing the names.

Monday, October 31, 2011

More Penglai Photos (Courtesy of Kathryn and Susie)

Here are a few more photos from lovely Penglai.  It really is a special place.

Memorial to Lottie Moon

Southern Baptist church next to Lottie's church

Yes, occasionally I wind up in photographs.  Susie said, "Stephanie, stand there!"
They were preparing for a wedding at our hotel.
In China, wedding = lots of fireworks.

These sorts of things always get inflated for weddings.
Behind the balloon creatures is the hotel we stayed at.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Penglai Photos (Courtesy of Kathryn)

Here are some more photos from our enchanting travels two weeks ago:

Just look at these "delectables" for sale!  Anyone hungry?

Perhaps this tasty lunch would please your palate more.

Boats lined up along the waterfront.

A gorgeous temple and pagoda

China is full of beautiful architectural features like this.

There's just something cool about seeing all these old boats lined up.
I wonder what stories they could tell?
More old-fashioned boats at sea (Yellow Sea)
I love the fantastic colors of this pagoda.
Closer shot of the temple (pictured earlier)
The Eight Immortals (Linda and Maggie explained some of the legends about them to me)

Chinese countryside

Kathryn and I

Every now and then, I have to pinch myself --
I just can't believe that I get to LIVE in this country!

Such an awesome sight!

This is by the church that Lottie Moon built.  This path makes me want to run down it!

Penglai Pingua Pictures

Thanks to my dear friends Susie (one of the Chinese teachers) and Kathryn (one of the English teachers), here are some apple (pingua in Chinese) photos from Penglai (taken during our trip two weeks ago):

Don't you just want to bite into those wonderfully juicy apples and have the juice drip down your chin?  As you can see, some of the loveliest Fuji apples in the world are grown in China.  They were so delectable-looking that I wound up buying ten kilos of them!  Does anyone have any apple recipes that they would care to share?  ☺

We saw several trucks like this one carting large loads of apples.  There were also the more old-fashioned carts hooked up to bicycles.

I estimate that we saw more than twenty of these roadside stands selling the apples.

Friday, October 21, 2011

East Meets West

"Oh, East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . . "

I love Kipling (and that poem).  He's right; East and West seldom really do meet -- it's more like they collide . . . and the results are often rollicking fun.*

I have had some wonderfully bizarre "East meets West" moments since coming to China.  Sometimes I find myself nearly shaking with laughter when these two completely divergent cultures wind up in the blender of life together.

There is, of course, Chinglish (really unintentionally hilarious translations of things from Chinese to English).  For instance, while out and about in Weihai with Maggie and Linda, I found a poster advertising a local area to tourists.  What the advertisement meant to say (as Maggie and Linda explained to me) is that the area is a nice place full of friendly people.  What it actually said, in English, was "Amorous Feelings Town."  As I pointed out to Maggie, "Well, that translation will certainly bring in some tourists!"  (She smacked me for that -- East smacks West.)

At the hotel in Penglai, there was that delightful translation of chicken hearts, "Hear Left."  ?!?!  An entire team of Chinese friends were unable to work out how that particular translation happened.

And a special favorite of mine is Chinese caution signs.  The word "caution" (or "careful") in Chinese literally translates as "small heart" -- which I find just utterly delightful.  It makes sense if you really think about the meaning of the word, but when you see it written out in English, it's something that always brings a smile.  And then sometimes I end up tripping or bumping into something, because the caution sign distracted me.

Of course, I don't want to sound like I'm unfairly focusing on the Chinese side of things -- there are plenty of examples of we Americans messing things up in translation!  I mix up words so often that I could probably write a book just on that experience alone.  For instance, in my very first experience directing a taxi driver in Chinese, I meant to tell him that we had arrived at my destination ("daole"), but instead I messed up and said "Goule!"  So instead of saying "Arrived!" I said "Enough!"  The driver, a very patient and kind man, was amused.

*I am not saying that East and West NEVER meet -- after all, three of my closest and dearest friends (adopted sisters, really) here are Chinese.  What I am saying is that even when they do meet, there is still so much difference that they cannot fully fuse.  Even though I am very close to my Chinese friends, we still often have to translate/explain social mores, customs, etiquette, jokes, and even compliments.  I love them dearly (and they love me back), but we will always have these deep cultural differences that keep our interactions educational and amusing.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Finally, Something that Translates into Every Language!

In the midst of all of the fun/difficulty/jubilation/headache (it really is a mixed bag) of learning Chinese, I finally found one sure-fire thing that translates well with minimal confusion.

Are you ready for it?

It's a cough.  Or, in my case, a massive, dramatic, whole-body-wracking, enough-to-knock-me-over-if-I-weighed-twenty-pounds-less attack of coughing.  As one might infer, I am sick at the moment.  As in, sick enough that I even took a sick day today (and have, naturally, spent the entire day babysitting my email just in case the substitute needs any help with my classes -- which she won't, because she is capable and brilliant, but I am such a teach-a-holic that I have to worry anyway).

I started getting sick earlier in the week, with the usual completely disgusting alien-goop pouring from my sinuses, a sore throat, and a chronic headache.  By Tuesday, the cough had arrived.  Tuesday night, the fevers and chills showed up, and I shivered and hacked my way through a very unpleasant night (but, on the bright side, got all of the freshmen projects graded since I couldn't sleep).

Wednesday was just plain miserable.  I had a three-hour department meeting and two classes receiving tests, and I coughed my way pathetically through all three (I ran and got some very odd-tasting but reasonably effective Chinese cough drops from our very kind school doctor so that I did not distract my sophomores too much during their test).  In the morning, I was cranky from being sick and stressed and lacking sleep, and I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth complaining about something being done wrong, only to run into the person who had done it . . . who graciously accepted my profuse series of apologies and even made a few of her own (have I ever mentioned how dearly I love the Chinese people in my life and just how kind, lovely, friendly, hard-working, etc. they are? -- now you know how horrible I felt when I accidentally said something negative about one of them).

By noon, I knew I should go home . . . but I had planned an afterschool help class for my freshman, who are taking their test as I write this very post, and I could not bear to cancel it and leave them hanging (some of them were really nervous about their test).  So, I battled my way through the day, though I did inform one of our Chinese co-teachers (i.e. designated substitute teachers and generally awesome people who do pretty much everything, while being unbelievably sweet) that I would need her to teach my classes the next day.  A sick day was no longer an option for me -- it was something I had to do.  I hate taking sick days . . . . I really, really hate it.  But, since I couldn't go more than five minutes without coughing, there was no way around it.

I foolishly forgot to bring Nyquil when I moved here from the US, and oh, have I suffered for that mistake!  What I wouldn't give for some of that wonderful, merciful, drowsiness-inducing potion that got me through so many past rounds of "plague".  With no other recourse, I decided to be brave and go to a Chinese drugstore after school in the hopes of finding something for, at the very least, the sore throat and cough.

When I entered the store, it occurred to me that I do not yet know any Chinese words related to illness, other than the words for diarrhea and vomiting, which were two of the first words I learned (you may draw your own conclusions from this revelation).  I do know "tong" (pain) from when I went for massage and "bu hao" (not good), which is quite utilitarian, but that is a pretty small arsenal to have, particularly in a city full of thousands of helpful, friendly people who want to help the poor foreigner by offering loads of well-meant assistance . . . all in words that the foreigner has not yet learned from her beloved Chinese teacher.  I boldly went forward anyway, confident in my ever-increasing charades skills.

I really need not have worried.  The smiling pharmacist asked me (I assume, since it was Chinese words that I don't know yet) what was wrong with me (or what I needed, or more than likely something to that effect -- although she could have been asking if I like to watch water polo, for all I know).  I pointed to my throat and said "Zhe shi bu hao" (This is not good) and then, before I could employ any charades skills at all, I erupted into a timely fit of lung-flinging coughs.  The pharmacist nodded sagely, said something sympathetic that I understood the spirit of if not the meaning, and then went behind the counter and got something for me.  I paid an insanely cheap price for it, went to the store for "sick foods" and then came home and opened the box to discover . . . . very nasty looking cough syrup (they all are, I know, but this one has the added bonus of being brown and a little frothy on top).

Since the dosage instructions were, of course, all in Chinese characters that I haven't learned yet (well, except for "ren" which means person and really doesn't help), I shrugged my shoulders, gritted my teeth, plugged my nose, and slurped down 20 milliliters of the stuff (it had a little measuring cup with it, just like in the States).  The flavor tasted strongly of ginseng and ginger, intermingled with . . . swamp water, perhaps?  I, fortunately, had had the foresight to have a chaser (Sprite) right at my elbow.  The stuff was pretty effective for a few hours, although it made my brain a little fuzzy (or maybe the fever did that -- who can really say?).

Today, my sick day, my nasty medicine and I have spent the morning curled up on the couch together.  My illness, whatever it is, apparently beat up my voice and stole its lunch money, but one really doesn't need a voice to sit on a couch huddled miserably under a blanket.  At around 10:00 our ayi arrived, so there has been the "Yay Duck" of actually getting to see and talk to her (in my limited Chinese, since the only English she knows is limited to "hi" and "sorry").  Our ayi is very sweet and concerned -- she checked me for fever and offered to do something that I didn't understand (so I politely turned her down).  She periodically checks on me in between cleaning, and says sympathetic things in her lovely language that I really want to someday be fluent in.  Although a cough does translate into Chinese flawlessly, I really can't wait until I know enough verbs and nouns to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

An Enchanting Weekend: Penglai and Weifang, Part I

A group of about thirty of us took a trip this weekend to two gorgeous areas of China, Penglai and Weifang (they are about four hours away from where I live).  It was a trip full of history, magical moments, odd gustatory experiences (in other words, I ate something that should NEVER be eaten), beautiful Chinese songs, and of course, plenty of "squattie potties"!

I started out on the foreigner bus, which picked us up at 7:30 am on Saturday.  At a brief stop, however, we were told that anyone who wanted to could feel free to switch to the other bus (which the Chinese staff were on).  I immediately told my friend Kathryn that we should switch, and she agreed.  It's not that I don't enjoy the other foreigners (they're all the salt of the earth, as far as I'm concerned), it's just that my closest friends here, besides Kathryn, are Chinese.  Three of them have become family to me over the past nearly three months that I have been here.  In the midst of the difficult time that this last month has been, what with worrying about my mother constantly, Maggie, Linda, and Susie have gone above and beyond to encourage and love me.  So, I am always excited to spend time with them.

Maggie, Linda, and Susie cheered when we boarded their bus.  And then, after some preliminaries, Maggie promptly starting teaching Kathryn and I how to say "rest area" and "highway" in Chinese, much to the great delight of the other Chinese staff on the bus ("You never stop having lessons," one person laughed).  I then taught Maggie how to say "wind turbine" and "toll booth" (betcha can't guess what kind of scenery we were going past!), and then Maggie and Linda wanted to see if I could still remember the three words that Linda taught me in Weihai ("sand", "sea", and "beach").  I accidentally used the wrong tone when saying "sand", and thus learned how to say "foolish".  Isn't Chinese fun?!  Linda amused herself (and me) by teaching me about four more ways to say foolish, three of which I have, sadly, forgotten.  Everyone on our bus, including Kathryn and I, had brought snacks, so a lot of sharing of food went on (I love that particular Asian custom!).  I got to try yet another new fruit, which I really enjoyed, but I can't tell what it is called because I only heard the name in Chinese just once, over the excited din of conversation, and Linda and Susie had no idea what to call it in English (it probably doesn't have an English name).

Coming into Penglai, we saw on one side of the bus apple orchards, rich with luscious fruit, stretching endlessly into the horizon.  On the other side, we were treated to thriving vineyards backed by the glistening sea.  We stopped to look at the thousands of apples, then boarded the bus again and went to a stunning scenic area where we ate lunch.  I didn't eat anything too odd; the oddest thing was the fanged fish that glared at me with its accusing eye, and I wasn't about to touch that, no matter how much Maggie encouraged me to do so.  After lunch, we had a wonderful walk along the sea, admiring the beauty of various statues honoring the Eight Immortals (heros of old Chinese myth, whom Maggie and Linda told me quite a bit about) and the temples and pagodas.

We next headed to our first main destination:  Lottie Moon's church.  The building was restored and allowed to reopen following the Cultural Revolution, and the Southern Baptist church has since donated the funds to build a second church, which is next door.  We stopped in to hear the choir practicing in Lottie's church (I think she would have loved to have peeked into the future and seen/heard that).  Afterwards, we went into the other church to learn more about Lottie's life.  The talk was bittersweet; we learned that the pastor of the second church, as well of his wife, were killed with an ax by a former church member just last summer.  It was tragic to hear, particularly when we learned what wonderful people the Qins were.

We walked around, admiring the buildings and nearly feeling the history of the place course through our veins, then checked into our hotel.  Dinner was, as it always is in China, an adventure.  Owing to Maggie not telling me what I was eating until I had already swallowed it, I inadvertently ate sea intestines (not sure what manner of sea creature they were once a functioning part of, actually) and, to my horror, a tube worm. Although the flavor of both was just fine, I just couldn't bring myself to take another bite of that particular dish -- I have to draw the line somewhere, and worms definitely cross it.  The corn soup with pink sprinkles in it (as in the kind that one generally finds on cupcakes or ice cream sundaes) was delicious, as was the sweet and sour chicken, the mouthwateringly piquant chicken necks, and the wonderful spicy eggplant.

After dinner, a bunch of us took a long walk in the refreshingly cold evening air.  When we got back, I offered to teach Maggie how to play Quiddler, a fun card game that I brought from the states (the object, in a nutshell, is to make words).  Kathryn and another friend of ours, Ben, were also eager to learn, so we had a great game together.  Maggie loved the chance to improve her English, grabbing my arm every time an unfamiliar word was played and saying "Lao-San, shen-me yi si?"  ("Lao-San, what does it mean?"  In the end, she learned about ten new words.  Maggie loved the game!

As Kathryn and I settled ourselves into our beds that night, chatting amiably, I could still seem to detect the faint flavor of the worm I had eaten earlier that night, despite the best efforts of my toothpaste.  I knew it was just my imagination (the worm had no aftertaste), but it was nevertheless persuasive.  On the whole, however, I fell asleep with happy memories of the day playing about in my mind.

Yay Duck:  The scenery, the history, the time with treasured friends, the extra Chinese lessons, the beautiful singing at the church, and the chance to share one of my favorite games with some of my favorite people.

Yuck Duck: The worm.

More about my weekend adventures in my next post!

At Last, an Answer to the Ageless Question . . .

During yet another phenomenal weekend spent with Chinese friends (and fellow foreign friends, too), I at last remembered to ask about a question which has intrigued me, and many others, I'm sure, for years.

As any American child knows, any time that you dig a deep hole, people ask if you are digging to China. Or, if you are a child similar to the child that I was, digging all the way to China is your actual intent.  Ever since I was a little girl, I have wondered if Chinese people do the same thing in reverse.  When they did a hole, do they say that they are digging to America?

So, yesterday my friend Kathryn and I, while out on a stroll with Maggie, decided to answer this ageless question.  Maggie was quite amused to hear about our childhood adventures of digging to China.  But, sadly, she informed us that the Chinese do not do the same thing in reverse.  She had, in fact, never heard of such a thing, delightful as she found it.

And so, dear friends, the answer is no.  But perhaps that is subject to change -- Maggie really liked the idea of digging a hole to America!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Stephanie's Latest Addiction

As those close to me know, I have a habit of going through phases where I crave a certain food above all other things, sometimes to ridiculous extents.  There was, for example, the Great Grapefruit Binge of 2001, in which I went through the equivalent of an orchard in about two weeks' time.  In college I went through my Rice Phase and my Cheese and Crackers Fortnight.  There was the Frozen Mango Madness in Korea, which cropped up for weeks at a time throughout my year there, as well as the Jajang Myeon Period, in which I ate that same dish for lunch and dinner for about three weeks straight (and still wasn't sick of it).  Shortly after I arrived here in China, I experienced the Dragonfruit Bender of 2011, and subsequently learned that overabundance of dragonfruit in the diet has unpleasant side effects for the tummy.

I have recently become enamored with red dates.  I cannot get enough of them!  I was introduced to red date yogurt by my friend Kathryn several weeks ago, and have been eating it almost daily ever since.  I love it because it is not too sweet, and it has just the slightest edge to the flavor.  While in Weihai, Linda and her husband introduced me to the actual fruit, which I immediately took to.

I find that the flavor is best when the dates are in their mostly green phase of life.  They are called red dates because they turn red after being dried.  There are apparently two different types of them, and my kind friends had me sample both.  Those pictured above are the sort that I like best.

Some of the Chinese staff at school were explaining to me recently that red dates (also known as Chinese dates or jujubes) have a ton of health benefits, and when I researched the matter, I found that they were quite right.  Apparently, these have been used in Chinese medicine for over 1,000 years!  They are good for strengthening the blood, helping to cure anemia, and they are supposed to aid the spleen and several other organs.  Additionally (and for me, most importantly), they taste utterly delicious.

The texture is similar to that of an apple when the dates are fresh, and their size is comparable to that of a grape.  They are not too pricy of an indulgence: I bought about a pound of them from Lotus today and paid the equivalent of less than three dollars for them.  You'd pay more than that for chips or a lot of other snacks, and these are way better for you.  I prefer to just munch them as-is, but I have seen a ton of recipes for them, so I may experiment a bit later.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Adventures in Weihai

I just returned from a phenomenal staff retreat in Weihai, the city where I almost lived (I had a job offer there that I came very close to not turning down).  Initially, I felt apprehension mingled in amongst my anticipation -- although excited about the chance to spend time with several dear friends, I wondered exactly how much fun one could have while stuck on crutches with an ankle that swells up like an angry balloon at the slightest provocation.  I need not have worried -- my incredibly sweet Chinese friends made it a wonderful time!

I spent most of my time as the foreign minority among Chinese, and I couldn't have been happier!  I got to know several staff members that I had not previously gotten to spend much time with (their jobs and mine don't really intersect).  I also spent a lot of time being looked after by my "older sisters" Maggie and Linda and my "little sister" Susie.  They took me all over the place, frequently grabbing my crutches to make sure that I didn't slip and fall or get flung through the air (yes, they know me well already).  We also had two fantastic and inspiring seminars.

There were several unique and special moments during the trip:
  • I received a nickname from my Chinese friends.  Since there are four Stephanies at school, Maggie decided to rename me "Lao-San" (basically, it means that I am the third age-wise).  It seems to be catching on, so I may have a lengthy future as Lao-San.  Fortunately, I like it.
  • I ate jellyfish!  I did not like it!
  • I ate "hundred year old egg" -- duck egg that is covered with mud and buried, then dug up and served after it turns black.  (Surprisingly, it tastes good, and obviously, I had no idea what it was before I ate it.  I thought it was just an odd garnish on the tofu.)
  • I ate a chicken foot.  It showed up in one of the dishes at dinner, so I figured I might as well eat it.  Not bad, but not awesome.
  • I ate pig heart.  This was another instance where I did not actually know what I was eating (it just happened to be in my soup at the Korean soup restaurant that friends and I went to).  It was okay, but I did not care for the texture.  Maggie insisted that it was good for my skin and that I should finish it all, but I had filled up on soup, rice, and kimchi and had no desire to eat more.
  • I ate a very odd sweet cold soup which had a texture and appearance exactly like the results of a giant's head cold . . . if the giant had something horribly wrong with his sinuses.  I liked it, although it looked dreadful (that seems to happen a lot here in China).  I was eating dinner with a tableful of teens and preteens, so I opted to set a good example by not telling the kids what I thought the soup resembled until after dinner.
  • I got to go sailing with three friends.  We had perfect weather, albeit chilly, and managed not to get wet.  Poor dear Ruth, the Chinese teacher who shares my classroom, was not so lucky.  She and her husband were enjoying a very cute voyage in a kayak, then tipped right as they were coming into shore!
  • I taught a whole bunch of American slang to several of the Chinese staff.  I figured it was only fair, since they are always teaching me Chinese words.
  • I learned several new words, including beach, sea, sand, Chinese donut (that's really the best translation for it), and "let's go".
  • I was forced to dance.  As one of our team-building activities, our small groups had to each do the same song and dance in front of everyone.  My group was a bit unimpressed by the motions that were supposed to go with the song, so we improvised and changed it up in the third stanza, ending with a bow.  We received cheers and applause for our efforts, though we didn't win.
  • Maggie made me speak Chinese only (well, as close as I could get) while we were out and about on our first day (not for the whole day, just a large portion of it).  I was really surprised by how much I can understand; unfortunately, my vocabulary is very noun-heavy at the moment, so my limited verbs really cut down on my conversation potential.
So, although the crutches are a "Yuck Duck", the entire time in Weihai was mega "Yay Duck"!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Off to Beijing! . . . with Two Unwanted Accomplices

On Saturday morning, at the wee hour of 6:00, the bus came by to pick up Beth and I, along with some coworkers, and cart us off to the airport.  It was time for our teachers' conference in Beijing, an event we've all been looking forward to, even if it did cut into our week-long October holiday.  Travel is always a bit hectic, but in my case, there was the further complication of "Eustace and Puddleglum" -- the crutches I've been hobbling about on since Wednesday.

Wednesday was an exhausting day -- so exhausting, in fact, that I am sorry to admit to having a rather negative attitude towards the mandatory dinner that new staff had to attend after school.  While I appreciated the constant care offered to us by the school, I felt smothered at the time, and really would have preferred a quiet evening of leftovers on the couch with Beth.  The heavy rain and the fact that I left my umbrella at school did not improve my mood.  The dinner was delicious, prepared by a very sweet Korean couple from school, but I was so deeply entrenched in my unhappy mood that not even food could cheer me up.  Standing in the rain with the Braces (the couple that I traveled to China with) for more than half an hour waiting for a taxi after dinner and getting soaked continued to make me secretly cranky.  It was oddly fitting when I slipped on the slippery tile sidewalk on the way home and sprained my ankle . . . and then repeated the performance the next morning in the foyer.

I went in to see Dr. Ruth, our school nurse, shortly after she arrived at school on Thursday morning.  She examined my swollen ankle, wrapped it, and sentenced me to a week of crutches.  With our school being full of staircases (I teach on the third floor), crutches and a sprained ankle made my week end on a completely exhausted note.  It also meant that three of our staff were now on crutches, leading students to speculate about a possible curse.  Nitta broke her foot when her sink fell on it a few days before my injury, and a second grade teacher, Karen, had a knee injury weeks ago (followed by surgery while we were in Beijing).  Fortunately for me, the rest of the staff and my students were all quite sweet to me, carrying my lunch tray for me, moving obstacles out of me path, and even helping me up the stairs.

We had a pretty uneventful flight to Beijing, although it was a pretty cramped ride to the airport (one staff member had to ride on the luggage because there wasn't a seat).  All of our luggage made it, and I managed not to wipe out while disembarking from the plane (it probably helped that Vickie was assisting me).  We arrived at our hotel in a short amount of time, and were thrilled with how nice it was -- the softest beds I've ever seen in Asia, for one thing!

Since the conference wouldn't start until that evening, a group of us headed off to Beijing's Dirt Market, a really cool place with minority artisans sell their wares.  It was tough having to do my exploring and shopping on crutches, but it sure beat staying alone in my hotel room, so I grimaced and bore it.  We split up into twos, since you can't bargain effectively if you are in a larger group of foreigners.  My friend Jane (not the same Jane who is married to our head principal), principal of our new Early Childhood Center, opted to go with me.  We have similar interests, so we had a great time together.  We got matching jade bracelets at unbelievable prices and each picked up a piece of art (a painting of cherry blossoms for my bedroom and a painting of the ocean for her office).  We had lots of fun looking at the unique crafts and antiques.  After the Dirt Market, we all headed (and hobbled) off to Peder's, a fantastic Mexican restaurant, where I had the best milkshake I've had in years (mmmm, Bailey's!) and chicken/beef enchiladas.

The conference itself was quite interesting, and even inspiring at times.  I only had one session disappoint me, although I did later wish that I had gone to more of one woman's sessions, as I found hers to be the most helpful.  One of the focuses was on fine arts, and I got some great ideas for further fine arts integration in my classroom.  I also went to a really interesting seminar about women in the UAE, which made me even more thankful to be in China!

There was so much to do in Beijing that even without crutches I would not have been able to do as much as I wanted.  I decided that sightseeing should wait until I have two good feet (or at least one good foot and one sullenly-behaving foot), so I did not go to the Great Wall or any of the cultural sights that I long to see.  I instead focused on making some necessary purchases for improving life, such as a pair of Uggs to get me through the upcoming Chinese fall and winter (with my Renaud's Disease, cold weather is horrible).  I managed to bargain my way down to a great price on a beautiful new purse (apparently, I am much better at bargaining here than I am in Mexico -- I guess I've gotten more stubborn in my "old age").  I got to eat at the best Indian restaurant I've ever been to, I had a horrendously crowded IKEA experience, and I got to meet up with all of the friends I made at PFO and find out how they were adjusting to their respective cities.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the oddest and coolest part of my trip to Beijing:  I ran into a girl from Galesburg, Michigan, which is remarkably close to my hometown.  When we started talking, we discovered that her home church was one of the five that supported my high school!  She turned out to know several people that I went to school with.  Then, just to make things even odder, we met another girl who currently lives in Guam and works with a girl that I went to high school with and that my Galesburg friend went to church with!  Talk about six degrees of separation!

A large group of us, including two of the three cripples and several babies, traveled on the same late flight back from Beijing.  When the bus (that picked us up from the airport) deposited the last of us by the back gate of our apartment area, our head principal and his wife decided to shove me into a wheelchair and give me a ride back to my building (since I had nearly fallen down the stairs when disembarking from the plane earlier, I think they were motivated by practicality as well as charity).  Dave suggested to Jane that she let go of the chair while we were heading downhill, which meant that my not-quite-runaway wheelchair (Jane was running behind it) nearly took out dear Tien (wife of one of our school counselors), who was pushing her son's stroller.  Tien is, fortunately, an agile jumper.  We made it back without further incident, and I gratefully collapsed into bed shortly thereafter (it was a little after midnight when we got in).

Although Beijing was a fun city to visit, it is not nearly as friendly or as uncrowded (by comparison) as Qingdao, and quite frankly, you could not pay me to live there!  I had a great time, despite the ankle, but I am really glad to be home!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Pichaiyuan on a Sunday

Two Sundays ago, some of the Chinese staff from school took out several of us new foreign staff.  They wanted to show us a really neat area, Pichaiyuan, and introduce us to even more of the local food.  Susie, the one who organized things, divided us foreigners into pairs and small groups and then assigned a Chinese staff person to each group, which was a great idea.  I was happy to have Linda, whom I had only recently met but very much wanted to know better, placed in charge of my group.

My favorite of the foods that we got to try was a soup that Linda explained is called "tofu brains" when you translate it into English.  I am sorry to say, it is not a pretty dish.  In fact, it looks like vomited cottage cheese floating in a bowl of mucus.  If you can overcome the appearance, however, (as I did), it is really delicious.  Honestly!  Another thing I enjoyed was the mutton on a stick.  Susie claimed that it was spicy, but I disagreed.  So, Linda got me another one that had about five times the usual amount of red pepper on it.  I offered to share, but this is not a province accustomed to truly spicy food, so my Chinese friends declined the offer.  One of them remarked "I would die!' when offered a bite.  I guess Korea really did give me tastebuds of steel when it comes to spiciness!

We also got to see some of the fantastic Chinese crafts for sale, such as the adorable pens that they make and little carvings made from vegetables.  We saw a lot of pretty scenery, and even got to check out a neat bookstore on our way home.  It was one of the most fun days I've had here in China, which is saying a lot.

Our happy group, after a few hours of good food and exploring.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

New Haircut

Having had a stressful few weeks, I was in need of some change.  Whacking my hair off seemed a good option.

So, this morning I went to a salon where they speak only Chinese (relax, I had Beth with me), and had a wonderfully relaxing head massage as they washed my hair (oh, I do so LOVE Asia!).  Then, using a mixture of charades, Chinese, Chinglish, and some help from a guy who turned out to speak excellent English, Beth and I managed to communicate that I wanted my hair cut to my shoulders, with layers and face framing.  The man came who was to cut my hair . . . and within a moment, I knew that I was in the hands of The Artist (you should pronounce that word with an accent in your head in order to have the proper effect).

He was a very trendy fellow.  Chinese, with blond, "pretty boy" hair, tight red pants, shirt stylishly unbuttoned just the "correct" amount, and a demeanor that bespoke dedication to Hair (capitalization essential).  He examined.  He unsheathed his scissors in a way I have only seen in sitcoms.  Never have I witnessed such dedication to craft -- it was as though my head were a canvas, and he was da Vinci.  Every individual strand of hair received his personal attention.  He molded, he shaped . . . in his capable hands, my hair yielded to a master and actually behaved.

This grand production, "Mysterious Foreigner in the Hands of The Artist," naturally, attracted a fair amount of attention.  Soon, we had a crowd of about ten Chinese people gathered around us: five employees of the salon, three customers, and two people that I honestly believe just came in off the street to observe the show.  There was considered conversation, all in low, hushed voices, as the masses of hair continued to plummet to the floor.  It was a little unnerving for the foreigner, who rapidly became aware that she was losing a bit more hair than she had intended.  As The Artist worked, however, I began to see something -- an incredibly cute, flattering hairstyle -- emerging, and I realized that I had nothing to fear.

The production continued after the cutting, thinning, and such was done.  The Artist stepped back and an underling (I assume, from the respective demeanors of both parties) came forward to handle the mundane process of drying my hair.  When it was, I thought, done, The Artist returned.  A few strands troubled him, and were immediately trimmed.  Other flaws that I could not discern were likewise fixed. Then, The Artist finished drying every single individual strand of my hair, molding each of them to face the right direction.  I have never in my life received such attention at a hair salon -- it was $500 service, for the equivalent of $10.  Wow; somedays I really, really love China even more than usual.

To make the whole thing even more theatrical, the group around us actually applauded when it was over!

Here's a "before" photo of my shaggy long hair, which had managed to grow three inches since I came to China (honestly, my hair and nails have never in my life grown as fast as they do here):

And, here's the New Look, courtesy of The Artist (the photos do not do it justice; I had gotten a bit windblown from going grocery shopping, pearl-shopping at Jimolu, and two taxi rides with the window down):

"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"