(September 2, 2013) A typical weekend at home in Vermont includes brief trips into Middlebury to have breakfast or coffee with a friend, get my mail, walk around the farmer’s market, Pick up a few things at local stores and then go home. Rich tends to stay at home puttering around the house, yard or working on a sailboat that he is building. We listen to Vermont Public Radio on Saturdays throughout the day and watch a movie on Netflix. We are homebodies enjoying quiet but productive days with each other. If our second weekend in Hohhot is an indication of the future, our previously quiet existence has changed.
In the past three days we have frequently been out of our apartment. We have:
(Friday) taken an evening walk through a substantial city park complete with paved walkways, man made river with paddle boats and canoes available to rent, an aging amusement park for young children and an island in the middle for picnics and hanging out. People of all ages strolled, jogged, and biked among the flowers, waterway, and trees many of which were weeping willows.
Today (Saturday) had lunch at the home of an IMNU English Teacher friend of Rich’s, Xiuling (sounds like sheeohleeng), her university art professor husband, Jin, and their three and a half year old son, Mingan (sounds like Ming Ahn). Xiuling’s college age nephew and niece were there as well. Their home, a modern two bedroom apartment near the shopping mall I spoke of earlier, is bright and cheerful with the toys of a pre-schooler scattered around. The walls had become a canvas for the artistic talents of Mingan. Circles and letters (English) had been drawn on several walls from floor to 3 feet high. His medium was of course, crayon. Artistic expression was encouraged. In this family where the father spoke Mongolian and Chinese, mother spoke Chinese and English, Mingan was quickly becoming proficient, within his developmental age, with three languages. His parents switched language systems spontaneously and Mingan had no problem understanding them. The brain of a 3 and 4 year old child has produced more neurons than it needs for language acquisition. There is a “window of opportunity” for language to develop during this time. It’s a “use it or lose it” phenomenon. If we are not exposed to language during this time, it is much more difficult to learn one later in life. Those over abundant neurons will diminish or atrophy after awhile if not used. Assuming Mingan continues to be exposed to these remarkably different languages, by the time he enters school he will be trilingual. I cannot properly convey my envy as I watched this happy little boy play with English, Mongolian and Chinese.
We had dinner at a restaurant provided in our honor by the Dean of the Biology Department (forgot his name) and a geography professor / Chief Financial Officer, Berenjirigala (Beren for short). Also at the dinner were Tala, an English teacher now on leave from IMNU, pursuing her doctorate at Beijing University, two of her peers and the daughters of the Dean and CFO. The dinner event served many agendas. First, it was an opportunity to be welcomed by dear friends of both Rich and me. I hope I am not being redundant, but Rich is beloved and respected at IMNU. We have heard over and over again, how appreciative and excited faculty, staff and students are to have him return to Hohhot. He has several good friends, but perhaps none as close as Tala who has taken him under her wing for many years. Beren and the Dean also have affection for Rich because he has enthusiastically shared his time and knowledge speaking to students in other departments on a variety of topics. Second, it was a chance for the young adults and college students to interact with us. The two fathers were eager to have their daughters speak English with us in an effort to enhance their language skills. Third, it was a time for Rich and me to reconnect with our friends, as well as maintain a favorable relationship with three politically powerful people at IMNU. It is a matter of sincere affection as well as mutual advantage.
This private party was held in a small room. We sat around a 6 foot diameter table with a huge glass “lazy susan” that allowed for food to be rotated to each diner. We had small plates to put food on, but generally ate directly from the serving dishes, picking out bite-size amounts of food with chopsticks. Always too much food. Eating was interspersed with toasts, a strong tradition in China and particularly Mongolia. I will talk about toasting another time. Suffice it to say, the evening was very enjoyable. Plus Rich and I were invited by Beren, to a traditional Mongolian Wedding next Saturday.
We had a Sunday a day filled with a morning to evening excursions. I started with a 5 mile run at the track with Xiao Wei while Rich went to the administration building for a wifi connection to send his students their papers. Afterward we went to the Mongolian Museum with the Biology Dean’s daughter, Anier (Mongolian, pronounced Ahneear), the Music teacher’s daughter, Sanglin (Sahnglin), and a male school friend Paxin (pahsheen) wanting to practice his English. The three 17 year-olds were a delight. I had met both Anier and Sanglin three years age. At age 14 they were shy, gawky and very adolescent. Now, as young women, they are mature, confident, kind and smart. Paxin was a nice addition to the group. Anier is Mongolian and Sanglin identifies the grasslands as the home of her family. They derived pride in sharing their knowledge of Mongolian history at the museum. English skills varied with Anier the most proficient and Paxin the least. Along with my unimpressive attempts at Chinese the 5 of us communicated quite well.
In the evening, though pretty tired from our excursion to the museum, we went to meet friends for Karaoke. This was hosted by another English teacher Xiping (shee-ping) who is quite charismatic. I have never been to a Karaoke facility. We were a group of 15, all friends of Xiping. Six of us spoke English. As you might have guessed, most of the songs were Chinese. There was a list of American songs but only two were family to us, “HELP” from the Beatles and “FAME”. All the other songs were much too contemporary for us. Snacks of caramel popcorn, sunflower and spicy pumpkin seeds, melon plate, Chinese beer, and tea were provided. Goodness, it was dark and loud in the living room sized space. An electric rotating purple “disco” light provided mood. A couch wrapped around three walls with a video screen hung on the remaining wall. There were two microphones and the usual “follow the magic ball” format where the singer(s) could read the lyrics. Everyone sang. Despite the volume, goofy ambiance and limited American music, we had a fun time. We left the group ready to sing on for another few hours They didn’t have to teach the next morning like Rich. Xiao Wei, who had been there walked us home, I think as a gesture for security. It was sweet. We passed by several produce trucks with men and women chatting together in a parking area near the Karaoke. Xiao Wei explained that they drove their freshly filled trucks from farm fields outside the city, then would sleep in or on their vehicles until morning. They would get up early to sell the produce either on the streets or to store keepers. Very interesting.
By the time we walked home it was about 10:00. Not too late. Thank goodness the week was to begin in a few hours. We needed a break from all the activity of the previous 3 days.