BEIJING

 People here in Hohhot often encourage Rich and me to visit their home towns or historically significant places in China.  “Before you go back to America, you must go to….”  As you might imagine, Inner Mongolia let alone, China is a big place.  There is no way we could travel and experience the many different sites that have been suggested.  However, when our friend Tala invited me to go to Beijing for a week, we made it happen.  Rich has been to the capital city and urged me to take the 6 hour train trip to see the sites.  With his help through covering my classes, I was able to accompany Tala to Beijing University, now called Minzu (Minzoo) University where she is finishing her doctorate in Education. Her dissertation topic is “Incorporating Mongolian Culture within English Language Classes for Ethnic Mongolian Students”.  This particular trip to Beijing afforded Tala the time to meet with her advisor, attend a one day training, and take me around to many tourist sites and “good” shopping areas. During those times she was occupied with school/work demands, Tala had arranged for others to be my travel guide.

This was a trip of ups and downs.  I was able to see several important historic sites including a portion of the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Summer Palaces both “new” and “old”, Temple of Heaven, and an additional Temple that housed many different Buddha statues.  I also went to a number of shopping areas, some for tourists (didn’t buy anything here), some for Chinese, (bought some things here).  One shopping street that looked much like an alley, turned out to be a boundary line separating two ancient political districts in Beijing.  It has maintained the same market function for several hundreds of years.  And, of course, I ate. Food for the week varied from KFC chicken nuggets, to an all Mongolian meal, to Beijing (Peiking) roast duck, to soup from the street that looked like it was filled with centipedes, to porridge and pickled veggies for breakfast.  I had two meals, each with post-graduate and doctoral students. One Lunch included Tala’s advisor and a later dinner included a college Dean. The highlight for me was being able to get to two different Starbuck’s for a western coffee fix.  I know it sounds shallow, but after you have tried watery porridge, and centipede soup, you really, really want something familiar and appealing.

Along with playing foreign sightseer, I got to experience campus life. This was an experience that will take up it’s own email.  I think I have said before, that if my living situation is equal to or better than camping, then I am fine.  Dormitory life in China, even the most prestigious college in the country, does not come close to camping.  It was a challenging experience that had an unfortunate surprise the night before we returned to Hohhot.  More later.

The other two positives about the trip were Tala’s friends and peers as well as being able to run on the campus track.  It was enjoyable hearing about the students’ studies, research, educational and career goals.  Everyone, smart and passionate about their particular academic areas.  The track was not a big deal. In fact it wasn’t much better than the two at IMNU.  It was just nice to get out and run.

Despite some ordeals interspersed through the 6 days, looking back, the positives far outweighed the negatives.  Rich and I may even return to Beijing before leaving the country.  If so, we won’t stay in a dorm.

CHINESE COLLEGE DORMITORY LIFE

 

Everyone who has taken a basic psychology course has heard of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. Essentially, the notion is that only when you have your basic biological needs, such as food, shelter, sleep, excretion etc. met, can you then proceed through higher levels of functioning like safety, love and belonging.  The pinnacle of this hierarchy is Self Actualization, where you are in a “pretty good place” in your life.  The Chinese authorities put Maslow to the test as demonstrated by living conditions of college students.

Tala and I arrived at her 8th floor Doctoral student dorm room mid afternoon last Wednesday.  Soon after getting off the elevator, I noticed three things.  First was the smell as we walked by the semi open bathroom area.  Second was the cold temperature due to open windows in the bathroom area as a strategy to reduce the smell.  Third a single clothes line overhead on the right that extended the length of the hallway filled with drying clothes.  There was an occasional shallow round plastic tub catching drips from the freshly washed clothes.

Tala shares her dorm room with another doctoral student.  There are two bunk bed sets, two desks, a single small self standing closet and an area for both cleaning supplies and one gallon thermos containers for hot water.  Unlike undergraduates who total 6 to 8 in a room and master’s level students who number 4, doctoral students live with one other roommate.  Tala lives with Tana, another Mongolian student.  They use their respective upper bunks for storage.  Generally theirs is like many dorm rooms: small, cramped and filled with stuff.  I slept in Tala’s bed, while she slept down the hall in another friend’s dorm room. Tana, the roommate, was up around 7:00am would quickly dress and immediately leave for the library. She wouldn’t return until 11:00 at night.  This meant I hardly saw her.  We did have a nice chat on the weekend, but otherwise she stayed away from the dormitory.  Though a bit squished, the room was ok.  Best was that it was warm.

I knew that the bathroom area would have squatting toilets and I steeled myself to this fact.  There were only 4 “stalls”, all of which, to be frank, were disgusting.  At the risk of being too graphic, it is customary to put all paper products used during toileting in a small waste basket.  You don’t put paper in with your bodily fluids cuz you don’t want to plug up the plumbing.  The baskets are emptied, I think, maybe daily.  Needless to say, stall environment quickly becomes an assault on 4 of our 5 senses. Those who have traveled to countries with squatting toilets also know that if you don’t bring you own paper, you are out of luck.  As I said, I knew this would be the situation and was fairly prepared for it.  What I was a bit surprised with, was the fact that in the entire building there was no running hot water. Students can take showers, but they have to walk across campus to a communal (single sex) shower building to do so.  Throughout the day, young co-eds could be seen in their pajamas and slippers carrying a plastic basket of toiletries, shampoo, soap, etc., walking to the shower building. (Remember, this is November).  They often also brought their brightly colored thermoses in order to refill them with boiling water in the building adjacent to the showers.  These two buildings were the only sources of hot water for students.  Additionally, students had to pay for water when they showered.  They places their ID cards in a meter next to the shower head to enable the water to be warmed.  The cost, I was told was nominal, but the hot water was not part of their tuition package. Given these circumstances it will not be a come as a surprise to know that students do not shower daily.  Instead, they “wash up” in their dorm rooms.  To do this, they mix cold tap water from the bathroom sink with boiled water from their thermoses into those shallow round plastic tubs. Some students wash their hair in the bathroom sinks using the tubs with warmer water to rinse off the soap.  These same tubs are used for hand washing clothes as well.

So, once again, I was in a “When in Rome” situation.  I washed up every day but only once went to the showers with Tala. It is funny, but as I was undressing in a very crowed locker area, it occurred to me that I had successfully avoided having to take a group shower my entire life. In high school, I would dress after gym, all sweaty, because I was too self conscious to be exposed in front of my peers.  Of course, they did the same thing.  It was just too embarrassing for us all.  Yet here I was, at age 60, getting naked with at least 100 young Chinese women.  They with their lithe youthful bodies and long black hair and me with my sagging skin and short grey hair. Fortunately, they seemed so lost in their own thoughts or conversations with others, they didn’t really take notice.  As for me, I had run 5 miles earlier in the day and knew my body, though old, was fit. Plus, I was so ready for a hot shower I didn’t care what anyone might think. Tala and I simultaneously used the same shower head that was being paid for with her ID card. I have decided that hot water is a gift of the Gods.  Life can be really, really bad, but if I have hot water to drink and bathe in, then I have a sense of hope.  This is how I felt after my one shower.

I finished dressing a little quicker than Tala and waited outside the lockers in a hall.  She came out laughing and then told me that a few of the women students earnestly asked her if I was Chinese.  Did they not see my blue eyes and whiter than white skin? It was too funny.

Though the shower was good, the life of college students; daily hauling hot water to dorm rooms to wash bodies and clothing, having to use cold, smelly semi exposed toilet facilities that back up and over flow and cold water sinks for all other needs, is not only unappealing, but also wore me down.  These conditions, along with a few other circumstances that occurred during my stay, resulted in some private emotional breakdowns. Only Rich, who received my phone texts knew I was struggling. The basic physiological needs that Maslow talked about are met in China, as far as these students are concerned. They know no differently. However, for me and the handful of post-graduate students who have attended schools in the west and Japan are not so comfortable. As it was, as soon as we boarded the night train back to Hohhot, my body let me know, I was sick with a cold.  China remains an adventure.

THE GREAT WALL: EVEN CHINESE PEOPLE CAN BE SNOOKERED

 Tala and I arrived in Beijing the on a Wednesday afternoon.  That evening we went to Tiananmen Square only to find that it was closed off due to a Special Political Congress meeting that had occurred during the week.  Though, Tala was disappointed at not being able to show me several statues in the square, it was dark and I have mixed feelings about the place.  She and I briefly discussed the 1989 student protest, but it is somewhat of a forgotten event in the Chinese psyche.  After the protest 24 years ago, some rules were established to prevent college students assembling in a political manner. Those not born at the time, have no awareness of Tiananmen Square. So I was ok about not seeing it.

What I wanted to do during our first full day was to go to The Great Wall (GW).  Because it was out of the city, we planned to spend much of the day on this field trip.  If you are not with a tour group, one of the best ways to get to the GW is by bus.  A brief taxi ride from Beijing University (Min Da), brought us to a triangle of sorts where several city busses stopped.  Across the street from where the taxi let us out was a sign that read in English, “For the Great Wall of China, take bus 877.”  We crossed the street and Tala began reading bus schedules to get an idea of when 877 would arrive, when a man not much taller than me and casually dressed, told her the bus would come right where we were when there were enough people to fill it.  So we stood waiting.  Other Chinese tourists were told the same thing and our line grew.  While we patiently waited for the bus, Tala observed a cluster of men in the street.  “Those men are black taxi drivers”. She said with a warning tone.  I knew this term and what it meant and avoided looking in their direction.  In China, and probably other countries, there are taxis that are licensed and certified.  They look like taxis with a standardized car make, color and company signs on their roofs. Kind of like “Yellow Cab”.  Then there are the independent (black taxi) drivers who offer to provide taxi services for unsuspecting or desperate people.  They are not regulated and at worst can be exploitive and violent should you get in their vehicles.  More than once, our friends have warned us not to get into a black taxi.  “It is dangerous!”. One of the drivers approached Tala and said the bus would take a long time to arrive, but that he could take us to the GW quickly.  She ignored him.  It took about 15 to 20 minutes before Tala decided to walk a little ways to read more bus schedule signs, while I held our place in a line of about 15 people.  In only a few moments, she pointedly came to me, took me by the arm and said we were going elsewhere. As we moved away out of earshot, Tala said that it was a scam.  Bus 877 was located on the other side of the triangle.  We couldn’t see it because it was blocked by a building.  Once we walked circled around the triangle we immediately saw bus employees dress in red jackets (company uniforms) and a line of tourists boarding the “last bus of the day” to the GW.  We had almost been totally snookered by the little scam on the other side of the triangle.  The purpose of the little guy having us wait for the bus, was in hopes that we would get frustrated and take one of the “black taxis”.  I was relieved that Tala figured this out and happy to board bus 877, but felt bad for the other people on the other side of the building standing in line who didn’t know what was up.  Tala apologized for not telling them, but frankly I think she was a little frightened by the taxi drivers.  All I could think of at the time was “If fifteen Chinese people were fooled by this man and his cronies, how would Rich and I ever have figured it out if we were on our own?”

Despite the dark side of the morning, once on the bus and traveling toward the mountains, we were upbeat. I’m not sure what to say about the GW, other than it really is great.  I know some of you have been to some part of the wall and hiked the steps to the different towers.  For us, because the weather was a bit chilly, the leaves were gone and the wind gusty, by Chinese standards, their were not that many people out.  Because we had arrived late morning, our trek was somewhat limited.  We chose a portion of the wall that took us to and through 7 towers.  Being the macha woman that I am, plus the fact that I am currently in pretty good shape, I really wanted to go to the top (7th) tower. However, my companion was moving a little slower and needed frequent breaks.  Doctoral students don’t get much exercise. When we got to the 6th tower, I was pumped to make the last steep climb.  Tala, with her sweet, kind voice then said to me: “Oh they have coffee and hot drinks.  Would you like to drink something, Gail?”  Translation: ”Can we stop now, please?!?” I looked longingly at tower 7, but decided that the right answer was: “Yes, let’s get something to drink.”  Though the tower was calling me, I was ok with stopping and turning back after our treat.  It was just so lovely being outside on this remarkable structure looking at the mountains.  I started to fantasize about Rich and me walking the entire 4000 mile wall.  Of course it was a brief fantasy.  But wouldn’t it be fun?  Kind of like hiking the Appalachian Trail.  In another life, I suppose.  Won’t be this one.

For me, the GW is up there with my experiences seeing Stonehenge in England, temples outside of Cozumel, Mexico, and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an.  I have never been to the Egyptian pyramids or Machu Picchu in Peru, but I tend to put them all in a similar category: Remarkable human made structures. Our field trip was just a tiny portion of the whole wall, but what fun it was to be there.

KICKED OUT OF THE DORMITORY

 

Saturday in Beijing had been a frustrating and emotionally low time for me.  Tala was busy with school and work demands and a number of schedule conflicts popped up with Liu Bin, a very softhearted graduate student who was to be my companion, that impaired my getting out of the dorm for a significant portion of the day. I was bored, tired and not happy to be in the dorm building.

When I found out that Tala wouldn’t be available until Sunday lunch, I decided to take charge of my morning. In China, as you may know, older people are truly revered. They (we) are treated with kindness and consideration in so many subtle and obvious ways.  The gestures are very endearing and sweet. However, this desire and obligation to take care of seniors occasionally feels stifling.  There are times that I have felt others perceiving me as fragile if not frail and vulnerable to the world at large.  The message I was getting from Tala and her friends was that if I was not accompanied by a designated companion, I should not wander far from home base (dormitory).  Running on the track was acceptable because it was on campus, but otherwise, I should stay put.  I bought into this mindset until Sunday.  I was frustrated, teary and as I said, bored.  So I took out my trusty smart phone and looked up Starbucks on the Map App. Turns out, it was only a little over a mile away down from Min Da.  I quickly washed up, dressed and walked down the road arriving at my personal Mecca at 9:15am.  It was located just inside of a western style shopping mall.  Unfortunately, the sign said it wouldn’t open until 10:00.  Despite the morning chill, there was no way I was going to return to the University without my coffee.  So, I stood outside and waited, watching people slowly gather round.  I was determined!  When the doors opened I was first to arrive at the Starbucks Counter.  In Chinese, I asked for the largest latte they had and a blueberry muffin.  The server talked to me in English, and for a moment I was surprised.  How did she know I was American?  My Chinese has improved and I know I ordered my food correctly.  It was so funny.  Maybe the comment made by the young women in the shower had an affect on me.  Maybe I was just exhausted and wasn’t’ thinking straight. Whatever the reason, it took a nano second for me to realize that I look as western as one can.  Anyway, I took my food treasure to a small table and spent the next hour savoring my coffee and sweet treat, while using the available WIFI to go online and buy two books for my IPad.  This little oasis touch of home was so comforting.  Not only that, BUT I was able to use the bathroom facilities that provided a seated toilet and paper!  What a gift!  I was so reinvigorated that I decided to buy a hat without the help of Tala or others.  This particular shopping center was one in which there was no bargaining.  Labeled prices were fixed.  Not as cheap but I didn’t have to depend on someone else to negotiate for me.  After finishing my food, online activities and attending to all my bodily needs, I found a store selling wool hats.  Up until this point, I had been wearing a pink nylon baseball cap.  The weather was getting colder and my head needed warmth.  I found two hats that looked ok and asked the sales clerk, in Chinese, which one she thought looked better.  She told me and explained why, in Chinese.  I didn’t understand everything, but we agreed on the choice and I bought it.  While in Starbucks, I received a call from Tala asking me where I was.  When I told her, she was surprised and anxious.  “Are you alright?  How did you get there?  You left the campus by yourself?  Can you find you way back ok?”  I was beginning to think she thought I was three years old.  Did Tala really think I was incapable of independent functioning?  I know she was asking me these things out of consideration and kindness, but it was somewhat of an assault on my western “independent” sensibilities.  No matter.  I was content with my morning and ready to spend the rest of the day in her competent hands.

A fine day it was too.  Tala and her friend, YunXia, another doctoral student and I went to the “new” and “old” Summer Palaces.  Both are ancient, but one is more so.  These expansive sights with manmade lakes, vast parks, stone boats were the summer playground of the Emporers and wives. A get-away from the Forbidden City.  It was lovely and my two companions were fun and funny.  Always learning more Chinese, I was taught the very important term fangbian (fahng be-ehn), fangbian.  One “fangbian” means “convenience”, “fangbian, fangbian ma” means “Do you have to go to the bathroom?”

Since I had been to the Forbidden City on Friday, there was a feeling of continuity touring the Summer Palaces afterward.

The evening was spent eating at a small Mongolian restaurant with a group of ethnic Mongolian friends of Tala’s.  Yes, lots of drinking, smoking, toasting and singing.  Interesting in its own way, but not much to write home about, so I won’t.

We got back to the dormitory at about 11:00 that night.  There were four of us, three graduate students and me.  At the lobby desk was an apparently newly hired attendant/monitor.  When we passed by going to the elevator, he asked us who we were.  Tala, was outside the building answering a phone call. The attendant told the others that I shouldn’t be there and needed to leave.  The others asked him to talk to Tala who finally entered the building.  She talked and walked him back to his desk and encouraged me to go upstairs to the room.  The others, looking concerned, departed to their own dorms.  In the room, I waited to change clothes in case I had to leave, but then, where would I go?  It wasn’t long before Tala came and told me that she was sorry, but the attendant was adamant about my not staying in the building.  “He is very worried because you are a foreigner.” It was now after 11:30 .  I gathered a change of clothes, and a few essentials and we left the building.  Tala made a phone call to another attendant to see if he could help us.  He was unable to do so.  We then walked to the campus hotel where Tala tried for 20 minutes to convince the very young desk clerk to let me stay the night.  Again, I knew enough Chinese that I understood her saying: “I told you, I have looked and there really are no rooms.”  Tala finally turned to me and said as we walked out of the building, now after midnight, “I know there are rooms, but she does not have the authority to let you stay.”  This was not good.  It was very cold outside and I had no where to go.  Foreignors are not allowed to stay at just any hotel.  They can only stay at those that are certified specifically for foreign guests.  Those of you who have visited China have stayed in these “certified” hotels.  Rich and I believe that to get the certifications, things like hot water and western like facilities are required to be available.  So, looking down the road outside of the University I was beginning to worry.  Tala kept apologizing but cheerfully said that we would try a hotel nearby.  I asked about one I saw across the street, but she quickly nixed it because it was not certified.  We didn’t walk far before we entered the lobby of an appropriate hotel.  Still, we were not sure they would accept me without Tala’s staying the night.  They required a cash over payment that would be refunded the next day.  Once the transaction was completed we quickly went to the room.  Only after Tala checked the place out, making sure I had heat, hot water and a reasonable bed did she leave to go back to Min Da.

I had started the day down, worked my way up emotionally, had some fun only to end the evening fighting a sense of panic that I would be roaming the streets of Beijing all night.  The positives were, I did have shelter, and the bonus of a hot shower in the morning.  Even so, I was emotionally done.  Only one more day in Beijing and then I could go “home” to Hohhot.  I was pretty much ready.

 

BARGAINING / BARTERING: YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY….

 Despite the unfortunate ending of the day before and a restless sleep, I woke up on our last day in Beijing feeling ok.  I was glad the hotel room afforded a hot shower.  Being clean is good. I also was able to sleep a little late.  I don’t know about you, but after an unpleasant experience, I can be somewhat adolescent.  In this case, my attitude was, I’ll get up when I’m ready and I am NOT going to rush out of here.  Not that I had anything to do. But I did take my time before returning to Tala’s dorm room.

I’m not sure, but I think it was around 8:30ish when I entered the college building.  The two desk attendances who had replaced the night crew, were familiar, friendly faces.  No one batted an eye at my presence.  It was as if nothing had happened 8 hours before.  Though somewhat like a “Twilight Zone” episode, it was just a blip in the trip. In the dorm room, Tala was dressed and ready to go.  YunXia went with us to the canteen for breakfast. After our warm soymilk energy drink, a few pickled veggies and a dough-like bun, we moved on.  YunXia, who had been great fun the day before walking around the Summer Palaces, had to return to her doctoral studies.  I was happy to know that we would see her again for dinner before Tala and I caught our 10:00pm overnight train back to Hohhot.

So Tala and I set forth to see two Buddhist Temples and do some shopping.  The Temples were impressive and important to see.  I liked them both.  What was particularly special is that we were visiting on the day of a full moon. This meant that most people around us were Chinese Buddhists coming to practice their faith.  Tala, was helpful in explaining what I was seeing, with regard to the buildings, art and statues, as well as the customs and behaviors of those around me.  We spent the sight seeing before having a snack at KFC outside the Temple of Heaven.  The only disappointing event was my losing a favorite fingerless mitten that was designed by a good friend and knit by me.  As many of you know, I misplace things like this all the time.  I really have loved these mitts and was sad to lose one.  The Temple grounds were too large to go back and search, so I decided that my mitt would be a gift to the Buddha. (Not sure which one though).

My sadness was quickly mollified when Tala noted a shopping center that we could go to.  I may have said this before, but Tala is an expert shopper.  Three years ago, I stood in awe while I watched her skillfully negotiate an low price for an umbrella I wanted to buy.  To have her here with me shopping was exciting.

This shopping center was not like the Western type malls.  This was one in which there were no price tags.  You were expected to negotiate a price for anything and everything. I have long been intimidated by this method of buying, but felt empowered with the “master” at my side.  Three important things to note in this kind of shopping area: 1) It looks like an indoor bizarre with folks selling either behind a table displaying merchandise or in front of the table so they have access to the consumer. 2) types of merchandise are grouped together.  This means that if you want a hat, there could be 10 tables in a row side by side and across from each other with hats for sale.  The sellers see you coming and can hear what their competitors are offering as a price.  This is both good and bad.  There is no real subtlety or privacy in this process.    3) The people selling can speak many different languages.  On this day, I heard ot Chinese, English, Russian, a Norwegian language, and I think, French.  It is not that they are totally fluent, but it is still impressive that they know enough to sell their products….well.

As soon as we entered the building we heard: “lady you want…? I have good price for you.” At this point I was like a puppy, keeping close to Tala’s heels.  I said nothing.  Just watched and listened.  After passing a few tables selling some items for which I was interested and getting an idea of the asking price, we stopped to negotiate.  Tala would chat, the seller would respond.  I would look through the stuff and decide what I liked and didn’t like.  In the end I got more than I was looking for at a ridiculously low price.  We were off to a good start.  Moving along I became more comfortable.  I even started speaking in Chinese.  (English) “lady I have socks.” I would respond (Chinese) 不要 Bu yao (boo yow {like being hurt ow}) which means “Don’t want”.  Or 已经买了 yijing maile which means “I already bought”.  This was almost like magic, stopping most from continuing to try to pull me into a purchase.

But the best was at the purse area.  I knew I wanted a large purse to use for traveling home.  I had been borrowing one from Tala and I was surprise at how much I liked it.  “Lady, we have real leather purses. See? What color do you want?”  I saw a few that looked interesting and picked up a large bright red bag.  “You see, it is real leather”.  In English I said emphatically that it was not leather.  It wasn’t.  Not to be deterred, she took out a Bic lighter and placed the flame next to the purse to demonstrate that it wouldn’t burn.  Felt like I was on an infomercial. “I show you how much.” At which point she pulls out a calculator almost the size of an Ipad and shows me the number 1200.  “But for you I will give it for..” and she then types in 750.  {So you understand; there are 6 RMB or what is called a Kuai for every American dollar. 60 Kuai equals $10, 600 Kaui equals $100 and so on}  It is not too difficult to do the math, but I liked to use my handy dandy smart phone Currency App for assistance. So what she was saying is she wanted me to pay $123.00 for a fake leather purse.  Even I had the ability to say with firmness (in Chinese) that the price was too high.  She said (in English) “ You name the price.” I put in a number on her calculator.  She responded with disbelief and dismay.  At that point, the bargaining game began in earnest.  Tala told me my original number was too high, so I lowered it.  The seller felt I broke the rules by going lower than I had started.  I was talking in Chinese and some English and she mostly English with some Chinese.  At one point, as Tala was guiding me (Yes I am “Grasshopper”), the tiny, very spunky saleswoman says to me in Chinese 你会说中文很好。 你不需要你的朋友帮忙。My grammar may be off a little, but it translated to “Your Chinese is very good.  You don’t need your friend to help you.”  At which point, flattered as I was, said in Chinese: My Chinese is not good and I she is my friend!” I had decided that I wanted the bag, but didn’t have to have it.  When I said “想一想”which means “I’ll think about it.”, the saleswoman’s partner sold it to me at my lower asking price.  I mean… this was SUCH FUN!.  I enjoyed the process so much I told my saleswoman (in Chinese) that she and her co-worker were a lot of fun.  We played the game and we were all happy.  She graced me with a quick surprised smile.  Only Tala, master buyer, was not satisfied.  “Gail, you are too kind hearted.  You should have bought it for much less.  See my new purse.  I bought it for only….”   When I look at the purchase now, I realize that I probably could’ve bought it at TJ Max for maybe half the price. I didn’t care.  It didn’t matter. I came to China wanting to speak enough Chinese that I could be an active partner in this life.  When I negotiated without fear in a language that is still baffling to me, yet enjoyed myself, I knew I had come close to achieving my goal.

I bought a few other things, like a new Ipad cover to replace the one that currently is falling off, another cute little purse and a baby t-shirt for Xiping’s and Wanghong’s new baby. However, I let my master do the hard work of bargaining.

I have said it before, but, shopping really can be therapy.  It certainly was for me this last day in Beijing.

The evening was pleasant and timely.  We had Beijing roast duck at a local restaurant with Liu Bin and YunXia.  I thanked them for their kindness and then Tala and I, with all our things took the bus to the train station.  (A bus ticket is 1 Kuai (18 cents).  The subway is 2 Kuai (36 cents).  The 6 hour overnight train trip with a sleeping bench, pillow and cover was less than $30.00 American. )  As soon as I laid down to sleep and just as the train was pulling out of the station, I started sneezing.  It is now 5 days later.  I’m on the mend  from my ganbao (gahnbow) cold, but still wiped.  Despite the challenges, worries, disruptions, potential disasters, and the subsequent exhaustion, it really was a good trip.  So many more things I could’ve shared but I think we have all had enough for now.

Only 4 weeks left and then we come home, home.

BIOLOGY CLASS

 

For the first time in our teaching careers, Rich and I along with Tala taught a class together.  At the request of a professor in the Biology Department, we taught a course about western culture. Professor He (“huh” hard to write the pronunciation of his name) believes that graduate students should improve their English and understanding of the west as a way to inspire them to become actively involved in international research.  Rich had taught this course with Tala in the past.  Though the content is adapted to the needs of the current group of students, it doesn’t vary significantly.  This was a low stress course that involved lecture, and receptive and expressive English practice.  None of these students were English majors so the English they knew was from high school.  We lectured about; 1) the US, taking a two week Power Point road trip around the country, 2) Holidays in the US, England and Australia including all major Religious celebrations, 3) Harvard (everyone wants to go there), and 4) Colleges in the US (because we know that most will NOT go to Harvard).  In recent weeks we have focused the class on attending an international science conference.  For this, we had students pretend that we were all going to a week long biology conference at the Hilton Midtown hotel in Manhattan.  The first week focused on travel.  Of the 40 students in the class, only 1 or 2 had ever been on a plane.  We covered practically everything we could think of to prepare these young adults for international travel.  Last week, we talked about hotels, tipping expectations, taxis, and conference room environments.  Interspersed between lectures were little language practices.  One person pretended to be a taxi driver while the other was a conference attendee.  Another scenario included checking into a hotel.  Pretty practical and simple, but filled with cultural landmines.  Tonight’s class was our last.  Rich gave a 30 minute lecture on writing a research paper for international publication.  This was followed by their exam.  We had a mock cocktail party complete with food, (fruit, sunflower seeds, peanuts, Mongolian Milk Tea, coffee and orange juice).  Students had to mingle and talk to each other in English for 5 minutes before moving on to other people to chat with.  It was fun and funny.  At each 5 minute period, Rich, Tala and I moved to what appeared to be fixed groups.  They didn’t quite get the “mingling” thing down. English was still very rough, but no worse than Rich’s and my Chinese.  All in all, it was an enjoyable exam exercise.

But what I wanted to share, other than Rich and I both liked teaching together, was how the class really ended.  Once we finished with the “cocktail party”, there was the obligatory class photos.  First the doctoral student TA had us all trundle downstairs outside to the front steps for an entire class photo shoot.  Professors He and En He (Anier’s father), came out from a meeting to join in on the pictures.  Then we all returned to the classroom, sat down and Tala asked if anyone had any comments to make about the course, wanted to sing a song or perform in any way.  Yes, she asked them if they wanted to perform for the class.  Don’t you know, that after a few moments a student was encouraged by her friends to sing a Mongolian song.  After her, two other young women danced a Mongolian Dance while a friend sang a traditional song.  A young man sang a love song to a “Beautiful Lady” which students laughed and blushed about.  Rich and I were then asked to join in.  We sang a duet of “White Christmas” and then I sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and Tala, sang a traditional Chinese/Mongolian song.  A few people spoke about how much they enjoyed the class and were sad that we were leaving. Once the entertainment was over, we ended the class with the obligatory individual photos.  Rich and I stood together, while each and every student had their pictures taken with us.  This photo event took an additional 15 minutes.  Once people had their photos, they slowly left the class.  At the very, very end we were given our cash payments in individual envelopes.  No paycheck or automatic deposit.  Just cash in hand.

I share this class experience not because it was unique, rather just the opposite.  All of our classes end in a similar fashion.  Not all are exactly the same or have the specific activities or cash payment, but the flavor is the same. Singing, photos, etc.  Even my Western Civilization Class kept me several minutes to ensure each student had her or his picture taken with the American Teacher.

Rich and I will have very fond memories of our students and our ability to teach comfortably together.

 

TRANSITIONING

Last week’s onslaught of emails and photos in such a short period of time turned out to be a good thing.  We lost our internet and then Gmail access for several days shortly thereafter.  The internet failure affected the entire building of international students and teachers.  Gmail turned out to be specific to me.  I think it was the large amount of photos to a “mass” audience that sparked an extra security measure.  Took me a few additional days to realize what I needed to do, before Google decided I as not Spam or MALWAR.  I will not miss these technological snafus once we leave. Which brings me to the topic of the day.

Three weeks from tomorrow, Rich and I will be leaving Hohhot and coming home.  Well actually, we will be going to Maryland to be with family for the holidays as well as meeting our new grand-daughter who is expected any day now.  We are both excited to get back.  However, as you might imagine these last days are bitter/sweet.  The realization that has been emerging for me, is that as much as I embrace the notion of change, I do not like transition. Transition is like Purgatory, being neither here not there.  A long time ago I made up the saying “Purgatory is Hell”, and continue to ascribe to it.  I don’t enjoy being in one place while beginning to plan to be in another.  One foot continues to be cemented in Hohhot, still working to understand the Chinese I see and hear.  Wanting to squeeze as much language in as I can.  The other foot moves toward home, packing clothes that won’t be worn in the next 23 days.  Groceries still need to be bought, but so too do Christmas gifts.  I have contacted friends/service providers/colleagues to schedule my next haircut, massage, workshop training within days and weeks of our return, while preparing for the next lecture, exam, dinner gathering and last haircut before we leave.  I am in the here and now, AND the future.  Two different lives beginning to overlap.  I feel like Elliot in the movie “ET”.  Though still connected to my personal ET (Hohhot/China), our touching fingers will soon separate.  This is not a process I relish.  There is a very strong possibility that we may never return to China.  Knowing this keeps that one foot in Hohhot resistant to move.  The good thing is that while we prepare to come home, both Rich and I try hard to use our time here wisely.  We are making sure to see as many friends as possible before our departure.  We joined IMNU’s fitness club for one month, to ward off the tendency to hunker down in our more than warm apartment during the cold weather.  Rich continues to attend English Corner several days during the week.  Of course classes are winding down.  As is the way at IMNU, time is fluid.  We think the semester ends in two weeks, though neither of us has been officially informed about this.  Rich and I are both receiving last minute guest lecture requests from administrators, teachers and students. So the Hohhot foot is not quite ready to join the American foot quite yet.

Transitioning has also had an unexpected effect on these missives.  The pleasurable time of writing is slipping away.  There is so much more that I want to share with you.  Things like; 1) Missionaries here at IMNU.  Americans hired to teach English, but whose not-so covert goal is to Evangelize. They do not practice a separation of Church and State despite China’s laws, 2) The International teachers with whom we share an apartment building, 3) The personal struggles and secrets we have been told by teacher friends and students.  Mental illness, anxiety, depression, spousal abuse, divorce and even an international marriage have been kept secret from others for fear of stigma and negative job consequences should the information be made public, 4) Remarkable Horatio Alger type life stories of several friends.  Teachers who; grew up in abject poverty, due to living in poor rural communities, the death of a parent, a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, and a parent’s unemployment due to a work related disabling accident. All of whom persevered and have become passionate successful educators. 4) The three Thanksgiving “Hot Pot” Dinners eaten this past week. Lots of meat but no 火 鸡肉huo jirou (hoowhoa, jeerow) “Turkey”,  5) my solo quest for a haircut, and 6) those unique day-to-day Hohhot experiences that I have yet to tell you about. Gosh so many things. I’m just not sure if they will be told.  Once we are home with both feet ensconced in American soil, I doubt that either you or we will be as interested in talking about the “past” adventures in Hohhot.

While we are here, I will continue to let you know about our experiences. For the next 22 days we will try to embrace both here and there. Transitioning may be purgatory, but it is not the end point. The end point will be home; and you know that there is no place like it!

 

 PSYCHOLOGY IN CHINA: HOW DO YOU REALLY FEEL?

Last week I gave the second of two guest lectures to undergraduate English majors.  I was told I could pick the topics but was encouraged to at least tell students about holidays in the West.  Rich has made so many wonderful Power Point presentations throughout his teaching career here in Hohhot.  I have exploited his efforts many times over this semester, and did so again for the first lecture in this mini series.  But because I had just written an email about transitioning back home, I decided I wanted to talk about psychology.  So many of these lectures have been, albeit informative, very superficial and fluff-like. I wanted to talk about what my professional life as a mental health provider has been about. Within the 90 minute presentation I showed pictures and talked about psychology, mental health problems, and treatment.

You see, the field of psychology in China is very new.  The notion of going to a stranger for help with an emotional problem parallels American attitudes in the early 20th century.  Actually, disclosing a personal problem to anyone but the most intimate of friends is eschewed by almost everyone here.  When I was at UMASS in the Ph.D. program (1989 to 1993), one of our classmates (Xiao Ming) was from Beijing.  At that time, his area of focus was career counseling/psychology.  Vocational counseling was much more acceptable than psychotherapy in China.  Now there are people interested in the field of psychology, and some who practice clinically, but again, it is very new.

This does not mean that there aren’t problems here Hohhot.  There are.  Although the people we have met, have told few if any, about their individual problems, they have opened up without much encouragement, to the American psychologist and retired elementary school principal this past semester. Generally, it doesn’t take much for most people to talk about themselves.  Eye contact, a few gentle questions, some hmmms, and an honest interest in what is being said, and in no time you can know a great deal about a person. So, despite the fact that friends, staff and students have kept some amazing secrets from others who care for them, they have opened up to Rich and me.  We have heard about professional dreams and frustrations, family issues, and emotional challenges.  Most of our friends work in the same department, but feel quite unsafe about letting their colleagues know of personal challenges or life events.  Secrets have included; 1) a marriage in which the spouse is from a different country,  2) a divorce, 3) being a victim of spousal abuse that resulted in a month long hospitalization, 4) depression, 5) anxiety, 6) possible psychosomatic issues, 7) substance abuse, and 8) a sibling with schizophrenia.

The most ironic thing is how many people within the English department at IMNU, have said they feel trapped, overworked, un-empowered and alone. The general feeling is one of dysthymia, or a low grade depression.  Our friends are thoughtful caring educators who are very good at what they do.  Yet, their enthusiasm is at an all time low. There seems to be a disconnect within this collectivistic culture.  The group is suffering because there is an absence of support for individual members.

After a semester of observing those around us suffer through challenges in silence, I did what I believe we were hired to do.  I offered a different construct on emotional problems to this young group.  I told them about the commonality of human suffering and shared a few western ideas and options about helping people feel better.  Many students were engaged in the presentation.  A few looked like I had begun to open a wound.  Some just fell asleep.

This lecture was a turning point for me, particularly in reference to “Transitioning” home.  The topic allowed me to begin thinking and planning to return to the work I really have a passion for.  It also was an experience that forced me to acknowledge that I, as an American psychologist, had little to offer to people here in Hohhot.  When a student came up to me after the presentation, looking very sad and seeking help regarding her seemingly depressed peer who had no other friends and was spending increasing time in her dorm room not doing homework, I realized I had nothing much to offer.  There were no real resources to suggest.  The student’s English was only a smidgeon better than my Chinese and other than empathetic words of support I was at a loss.  Asking a teacher friend at the presentation for ideas resulted in the student being directed to have her friend talk to another teacher.  Not helpful at all.  At that moment I was ready to come home.  That foot that was planted firmly in Hohhot soil has begun to take a step toward the west.

 CHINESE LANGUAGE LESSONS NOT NECESSARILY FOUND IN BOOKS

There is formal Chinese and there is slang.  I thought I’d share the few slang terms we have heard during our stay.

 

1.     关系  GUANXI (GWENSHE):” Relationships and connections” (Pleco Iphone App Dictionary)

Not unlike the US.  The positive is a networking quality.  The negative is “I’ll wash your back if you wash mine” at the expense of others who do not have Guanxi.

 

2.     走后 ZOUHOUMEN (ZOHHOHMUN): “Getting in through the backdoor”  (Pleco Iphone App Dictionary)

To gain influence by pull or unofficial channels.  Back door or under the counter connections.

 

3.     鬼城 GUICHENG (GWAYCHUNG) : GHOST TOWN.                Refers to the fact that despite the massive amount of construction happening in China including Hohhot, no one can afford to live in the buildings.  This has resulted in numerous clusters of empty high rise complexes.

 

4.     路 LA SUO LU (LAH SUE OH LEW)  ZIPPER ROADS:          The annual process of digging up the same road only to repave it.  The optimist believes that this is a form of road or infrastructure improvement.  Several Hohhotians believe it is a form of graft.  Either the road work has been done in an inferior manner or it is a “guanxi” (see # 1.) situation in which someone is being given the construction contract for political or other favors.  Either way, Zipper Roads are impassable during the summer.

 

5.       YIZU (EE ZOO)  “ANT TRIBE” :                          “College graduates who endure cramped living conditions while trying to develop a career” (Pleco Iphone App Dictionary).  I believe they can do this because of their years of experience in college dormitories.

 

6.    � / � JIONG (JEEYONG) “EMBARRASSED / SAD”:       This character is a new Chinese emoticon. This character looks like a sad face. Editorial comment -> 酷毙 KUBI (KOOBEE) “COOL / AWESOME”.

 

7.    土豪 TU HAO (TOO HOW)  “THE RICH SPEND THEIR MONEY IRRATIONALLY”.                                                   A tu hao is a person who has money but is not noble or well educated. The new iphone gold is called a “tu hao gold”  (Definition from Chinese friend.)

 

8.     This is not a definition… exactly.  Although CCTV controls the TV airwaves of about 200 channels, we have been told that most people get news information from the internet.  The reason was in a quote by a friend.  “Every day CCTV news says the same thing:  First they say ‘The Chinese leaders are working hard.’  Next they say, ‘Everything in China is good.’ Lastly they say, ‘Everything in the rest of the world is a mess!’”

 

Now you have it.  CCTV says one thing and the masses occasionally say _______.

FIVE DAYS REMAIN…

 

Earlier this week we began our “goodbyes”.  Friends are now saying “farewell” through celebratory meals.  The dean initiated the process a few nights ago with “Beijing” duck at a local restaurant.  Yesterday afternoon was a lunch with two young single teachers followed by a dinner at the restaurant across the street with Tala, her husband and daughter along with professors’ Enhe, Burran and Hugejiletu. Enhe’s wife also joined us.  The few days leading up to our departure will continue in this vein.

 

As we say “farewell” to our friends here, Rich and I have begun to talk about what we will and won’t miss about Hohhot and China and some things we never tried to do.

 

THINGS WE NEVER DID:

We never;

1.       even attempted or offered to drive.  Can’t wait to get home where the rules of the road are generally followed.

2.       ordered a meal when with friends.  This is not a simple process.  Ordering is often adrawn out negotiated experience in which the person buying spends several minutes talking with the Fuyuan (server) about the dishes.  Some hosts pay attention to the number of dishes.  Eight is an important number.  Then there is the number of cold versus hot dishes, meat of which several different types can be ordered, soup and what is called the main course here, but we would call the staple or starch, i.e., rice, noodle (mian), or bread item.  Menus are multi-paged with large photos of each dish.  Once in early September Rich and I went out alone and tried to order something from the pictures.  What we got was not what we saw in the photo.  Close, but we were surprised.  After that experience, we have tended to tell our hosts that we enjoy seeing what they like so we can learn about Chinese food.  What we are really saying is that we are afraid to make a serious gastronomic error.

3.       took a taxi without the help of friends. It all comes down to our comfort with speaking Chinese to a stranger.  I know we could’ve told a driver where we live, but traveling away from home would’ve been tricky.

4.       traveled outside the city without friends. Again, not feeling comfortable enough with Chinese, it is too anxiety provoking to leave the comfort of Hohhot.

 

WHAT WON’T BE MISSED IS

1.       Our bed, which can be described as “almost as hard as the floor”.  This sucker can cause bruises.  Some of you may be saying “At least you had a bed”, and you would be right.  I’m just say’in… I won’t miss it. The pillows on the other hand were pretty good though heavy.  They are stuffed with barley shells, like the U-shape car pillows.  I kind of liked them.

2.       The lack of adequate heating in classrooms.  It is ok, as a teacher who moves around, but anyone sitting at a desk has to where a well insolated coat.  One of you asked why students were wearing their coats in class.  They are cold.  This may be because the buildings keep the major entryways open to the outside.  Glass doors are open with thick curtains hanging to let people in and out.  Only at night are the doors close and chain-locked.

3.       Baijiu.  As much as I enjoy ritual toasting and a little alcohol, I don’t particularly enjoy the anise taste of baijiu and, since I am recovering from my 2nd major hangover in my life both within three years (here in Hohhot), I have come to the conclusion that Baijiu doesn’t like me either.  I may look like a “strong woman” during toasting, but I am a “weakling” the next day.  I will not miss this alcohol.

4.       Impressively frustrating internet.  An intermittent on/off line that can last several days, and occasional refusal to let one of our computers have access while another can.  No explanations.  The lack of contact through email and Skype with you all can quickly depress me.  Not being able to have contact with students has made our work difficult.

5.       The lack of structure and communication regarding expectations of instructors.  Dates to start and end school semesters are often decided only weeks ahead of time.  It is common to not know how long a course lasts within a semester.  As a new instructor here at IMNU, no one has explained to me how or where to send my grades.  This type of information is last minute and usually told to me by a student.  I have no idea where they find out about these things.

6.       Traffic. We are saddened by the continuing addition of cars on roads that were not made for them, and depressed as we see 1 to 3 accidents daily (we have not witnessed the events, just the aftermath).  In the short time we have been here, automobile drivers have increased their speed and become more aggressive.  We used to only see fender benders.  Now car damage is more serious.  Even CCTV has shown gruesome accidents in which pedestrians have been hit or caught under vehicles.  Rich predicts that Hohhot will eventually close the inner part of the city, allowing only pedestrian and bike traffic.  Something like they do in London. We’ll see.

7.       Squatting toilets. Enough said.

8.       Lack of aviation.  I miss seeing and hearing planes.  I would’ve loved to have been able to fly a small plane and see the Inner Mongolian landscape from the sky. Sigh L

 

WILL MISS:

1.       Sunny days.  We think that the sun has been out more than 95 percent of the time.  Regardless of hot or cold, the dry bright days makes traveling by bike and walking very convenient and pleasurable.  It has also given me many opportunities to run on the college track.

2.       Night sky. The flat desert-like area with mountains only in the distance has allowed us to following Venus and the moon despite living in a city.  It is easy to see why this is a culture that is lunar based.  The moon is rarely behind clouds. Lovely.

3.       Bike riding. To be able to hop on our bikes to travel most anywhere in the city has been a joy.  Our bikes were transportation and  an occasional source of entertainment.  We love the mountains, but riding on flat streets in bike lanes was terrific.  Once we learned the rules of the Hohhot roads (or lack there of) biking was fun.

4.       The shop around the corner.  This little mom and pop grocery is a two minute walk from our apartment.  We have been able to get all our staples and a few treats, like ice cream bars.  We never said much more that “hello”, “see you later” and an occasional “Do you have ____?”, but we felt a part of the neighborhood and everyone there smiled when we came in for some little thing.

5.       Our very warm apartment.  The classrooms may be cold, but our centrally heated home is a toasty 80 degrees.  Rich and I are in disagreement on this one.  He hates the heat.  When we walk into the apartment I immediately go “Ahhh” and Rich moans “ugh!”.  At night, the bedroom windows are wide open with one sunroom window open to the outside.  With the door closed from the large room, we can keep cool.  As much as I enjoy our woodstove at home, I will miss the warmth.

6.       Low cost items.  Currency equivalence is 6 Kuai to 1 dollar.  I will miss the;

a.       1 Kuai bus (18 cents) anywhere in the city without requiring transfer.

b.       < 10 Kuai ($1.36) for a taxi pretty much anywhere

c.        2 Kuai (36 cents) for the Beijing subway.

d.       30 Kuai ($5.00) for haircut and style

e.       1 Kuai (18 cents) to have an extra apartment key made by the sidewalk locksmith on the corner of our block.

7.       The students.  As teachers from the west, we have had to learn how students participate in classes.  They are so indoctrinated to learn by sitting and listening to lectures.  They rarely raise hands to initiate a question.  Even when asked if they have a question they are reticent.  On the other hand once you figure out how to get them to open up, they are filled with wonderful insights, thoughtful questions and a deep desire to learn, not just get good exam scores.  Both Rich and I have found ourselves teary either reading something poignant or having a student share a profound thought.

8.       Our friends.  We are leaving most of them in a really good place.  Several are preparing to travel abroad for educational opportunities lasting from 6 weeks to 3 years.  One has taken the national exam to pursue her Ph.D. in teaching English Literature.  If she passes, she will be able to attend a doctoral program.  Another good friend has made the move to get a visa that would allow for a reunion with spouse.  This is the marriage that continues to be secret.          Our friends in Hohhot are no more important than friends at home.  What makes it feel more significant is the frequency we get to see them.  Each “goodbye” may be a final one.  We are encouraged to return and told how much we are valued and cared for.  It is all so compelling.  I don’t see how we can assume that we will never return.  On the other hand we know that as we get older, the chances of this happening decline.

In the next 5 days, we will continue saying goodbye, doing some shopping, getting foot massages and eating.  If you don’t mind I think I would like to write a few more emails before ending this adventure.  The last email will let you know when we are back in the States.

 

 

 

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