Long Time No Blog

It's been a while since I last updated and a lot of things have happened lately.

First, I was involved in a professional production of Shakespeare's King Lear as the Duke of Albany. It was a blast, but its the main reason I haven't posted anything lately. I came into the production at the last minute because they lost their Duke (he had to leave the country, they didn't misplace him) and was lucky enough to have recently met the person who was playing King Lear, so he asked me to join. This play took up all my time though: I was at rehearsal every night for 2 weeks (the earliest I got home was midnight and I had to take a taxi home each night), followed by one week of performances, a week long break, and then another week of rehearsals and 2 performances. It was exhausting. Fun. But exhausting.

Kelly's parents and grandmother were here for the whole process as well, so when I wasn't working or rehearsing, I was spending time with them and getting to know them. I had a lot of fun while they were here and really enjoyed their company. And my Mandarin improved so much because I was forced to use it at home every day. Now I just have to convince Kelly to talk to me in Chinese - she's more comfortable speaking to me in English.

My sister came to visit during my week long "break" from the play. It was a short visit, sadly, but we packed it full of fun. I took her around the city a bit on her free time, and she got to meet Kelly's family as well. I did most of the translating - another challenge for my language skills. I wish she could have stayed longer and I could have showed her more, but it was a good visit.

After the end of the play, the next few weeks were taken up with preparations. Preparations for my PRAXIS test and for Kelly's U.S. Visa application. Thankfully, we were able to schedule both for the same weekend, since we had to be in Beijing for both processes. On Thursday, April 22 we got on the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing. It was a really nice train, very new, and very convenient. We went to sleep and woke up in Beijing. First we went to Tian'an men Square (天安门广场) and took some pictures. It was a little annoying because we were carrying all our luggage, but I'm glad I finally got to see it. To get rid of our luggage, we found a hotel nearby my test site. We were first rejected by one hotel because they didn't have a "license" for foreigners and had to stay at a quite expensive hotel instead. It turned out to be OK though, because it was only a 5 minute walk to my test center the next day at 7am. Kelly's interview was that Friday at 3pm and was a great success. She received her passport back in the mail just 5 days later! Now we'll be coming to the US in September! My test also went well and hopefully I'll be getting the official results soon. After my test, we just had a short time to do sightseeing, so we just went to the Olympic center and saw the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube before taking the train home. Incidentally, we ate at a Xinjiang restaurant in Beijing - it was delicious and I sweet talked the manager into selling me some of the tea leaves for a Xinjiang tea that Kelly and I really liked.

The other day I was walking in downtown Shanghai near Jing'an Temple after picking up my salary for the month. It was an unusually warm day and as I was standing on a street corner waiting for a green light, I closed my eyes and was enjoying the nice weather. Suddenly, I smelled something. Something delicious. It smelled like Arthur Bryant's Barbecue! I couldn't believe it. Here I was, half way around the world, and I smelled Arthur's. I tried following my nose to find it, but no luck. It went away just as quickly as it arrived. At that point, I really missed midwestern BBQ, but it made me think...maybe Arthur Bryant's is interested in expanding to Shanghai....?

Finally, just today, Kelly and I went to get some pictures taken. Both of us have been wanting to get some pictures for a while, and we found a fairly good deal the other day. So today around noon we went to a nearby photography studio located inside of a park. We were both made up, Kelly chose 5 different outfits (including 5 different hairstyles) and I got 2 different outfits (just the one hairstyle though) and we spent nearly 6 hours getting pictures. It was fun but exhausting. We get to go back next week sometime to choose which pictures we want in our "book", and which as separate pictures to frame/hang/carry in the wallet/send to relatives.

Now I'm hungry and food smells good. I'm going to eat.

Lantern Festival

This last Sunday, February 28 was Chinese Lantern Festival (元宵节). In the morning, Kelly's parents made 汤圆(tangyuan), these small, sweet, glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste, a traditional food for the holiday. They were really good. I had 8 of them.

For most of the day we didn't do anything special, but at night we went into city center to Yu Yuan in the old city to see a lantern show. It was quite impressive. There were hundreds of lanterns, plus special decorative ones made to look like tigers, Haibao (the Expo Mascot), and the China Pavilion. I took a lot of pictures; however, until I can share them, I shall just reference you to a generic website with pictures of the lantern show: click here.

Yesterday's Entry: Explanations

Sorry for the complete lack of English in yesterday's entry. I will explain, but first the explanation requires some background.

February 14 of this year was the Chinese New Year (春节) and Kelly and I celebrated the evening before together by going out for dinner, watching the national broadcast and setting off fireworks after midnight. Now, I love fireworks, but they started around 10 am that day and are, actually, still going off (although the frequency dropped off after a week). It was basically a constant banging for 3 days. Fun at first, but quickly headache inducing.

The night of Spring Festival, Kelly's parents arrived in Shanghai and she went to meet them at the airport and take them back to her apartment. The next day, I went to meet them - her parents had invited me for lunch and dinner. I was nervous as hell, but I shouldn't have been. Her parents are extremely nice and very patient with my lack of language skills. They are still here and we spent every day together during the break. Of course, they are both very keen on me improving my Chinese, and to that end, Kelly's father has been working with me every day and he made some very good suggestions to improve my learning speed and accuracy. Every day now, I write down 10 sentences that I have spoken in Chinese. As he said: "First say, then write, then do." For example, the first sentence I employed this method for was "我给您倒茶", roughly, "Let me give you some tea". I said the sentence, he had me write down the characters, then I did it.

This method has several benefits, including thinking through the correct way of saying something and using the writing down phase to make certain it is correct. At the same time, I am learning to write the characters much more quickly (I can recognize a lot, write...not so many) and any I don't know, I write the pinyin (Romanization) above. This method soon evolved into him helping me write a "daily journal" every night. I sit down and write on the computer what happened that day in the best standard Chinese I can, and then he helps me revise it (read, very heavily revise it). It's wonderful, and I'm learning a lot. I think I've learned more about "real" Chinese in the last week than I have in the previous 6 months I've been in the country!

Thus, yesterday's post was my first complete journal entry, written with liberal help from Kelly's father. A rough translation would read:
Tuesday February 23, 2010 Weather: Sunny
Today, Kelly went to work around 11 o'clock and came back home around 7 pm. In the afternoon I ate some noodles which I cooked myself. About 11 o'clock in the morning, Uncle Wan and Auntie Mei [the proper way to address your gf's parents in Chinese is as Uncle and Auntie] went to QiPu Road's Wholesale and Retail Clothes market. They returned around 6 o'clock in the evening. They bought some clothes: one black coat to give to Kelly, and one for Auntie Mei that is apricot colored. I heard Auntie Mei say that the price of her coat was originally 980 yuan, but they bargained and bought it for 760 yuan. This jacket is made of 90% silk and has a fur collar. About 8 pm we ate dinner. Auntie Mei cooked 4 dishes: fried pork with green peppers, lamb with boiled turnip, fried wo sun [a Chinese vegetable] and potato, and fried greens. After dinner, Kelly and I washed the dishes while Uncle Wan and Auntie Mei watched "Old Niu's Family's War" on TV.

I know its not the most amazing journal entry, but for language study at my level, I was quite proud (even with all of Uncle Wan's help). That's why I had an entirely Chinese post.

2010年2月23日 星期二 晴天

今天万琴上午十一点多钟去华西证券公司上班。 晚上七点多钟才回来。中午我自己做得面条吃的。万叔ˎ 梅姨他俩上午十一点多钟去了七浦路服装批发市场。下午六点多钟才回来。他们买了几件衣服,其中给万琴买的一件黑色的长棉衣。给她自己买了一件带毛领的ˎ颜色杏色的长棉衣。听梅姨说这件衣服的标价是980.00元。他们还价760.00元买的。这件长棉衣,标签上注明有90%的蚕丝做得。我们八点多钟吃了晚饭,梅姨做了四道菜,其中有肉炒青椒ˎ羊肉煮萝卜ˎ莴笋炒马铃薯还有小白菜。吃饭以后万琴和我洗的碗。同时万叔ˎ梅姨在我的房间看电视《老牛家的战争》。

ZhangJiaJie Part 2: Thoughts and Feelings

Chinese Airplanes
Plane travel in China is quite different than in the US. For 2 reasons. First, I haven't been on or heard about 1 flight in China (domestic travel, at least) that has left on time...or even close. Average seems to be about 2 hours behind schedule. Second, the flight is not like US domestic flights. It is treated as advertisement time. Basically, you get treated to an hour or more of live infomercials detailing every item in the in-flight catalog. Over the loudspeaker. Constantly. This does not make it easy to fall asleep, or even concentrate on reading a book or listening to one's own music. Not fun. They even passed out credit card applications....

The Tour
Apparently, during the winter when it is not peak tourist season, tour groups team up. This doesn't sound like a bad thing, but it is. And, actually, its possible that this happens during peak season as well, but I don't have any experience in such matters. What this meant for us is that we had 22 people in our tour, who all booked through different agents, which advertised different schedules, with different things included and for different prices. They threw us all together on one tour bus with one tour guide and created their own schedule for us. Thus, if something was missed that was on your promised schedule, well, too bad. But if we did something extra that was not on your promised itinerary, well then, you had to pay extra for it. This is why we ended up splitting with the tour group on Day 2, because we didn't want to pay an extra RMB200 each when we had been promised all-inclusive. We were lucky though. Our meals and the hotel were included in the price we paid. Most people didn't have that and had to shell out for everything. This mish-mash or disorganization is why there was a big delay on Day 1 - people were arguing about where we were going and what they had to pay for...

The People
I really enjoyed interacting with the other people on our tour. The ones we got to know best were an elderly couple (over 60), a Chinese woman who moved to America many years ago and is now an American citizen, and a middle-aged photographer who was traveling alone. Although the only one I could speak to with any semblance of fluency was the American woman, I interacted quite a bit with the others. I think they were all a bit surprised to see a foreigner on the tour at the beginning, but they warmed up fairly quickly and it was fun talking with everyone. And I got to practice my Chinese quite a bit while listening to the tour guide talk.

The hotel check in process is quite different in China, but I really enjoyed it. First, you go up to the counter and tell what kind of room you want. If they have one available, they quote a price and send you up to the room they want to give you so that you can inspect it. If it is to your liking, you come back down to pay and get the key. But before you pay is a very important part of the process. Haggling over the price. Yes, in China, you even haggle over the hotel rooms. We got a listed RMB150 room for RMB80.

One part of the trip I was very much looking forward to, and that didn't disappoint, was the food. Hunan province is known for its spicy food, and having a girlfriend from Hunan who has been raving about the food for years really prepared me to be blown away by the taste. The first meal we had wasn't that exciting, but it was also catered to the tour group, many of whom couldn't eat spicy. The rest of the meals though....lived up to and exceeded expectations. I'm not even going to try to describe it beyond saying it was delicious and I already want to go back for more. Also, the breakfast noodles are to die for.

ZhangJiaJie Part 1: The Facts

Last week I finally got out of Shanghai and went to explore a little bit of "real" China. On the 28th, Kelly and I flew to 湖南张家界 (Zhangjiajie, Hunan). Our flight out of Shanghai was delayed about 2 hours, so we didn't arrive until very late - nearing midnight. Although Kelly had been there once before, it was with her grandmother over 10 years ago, so neither of us were familiar with the city. Thus, we took a free bus into 市区 that took us to a hotel. Of course, since it was "free" we were accosted by travel agents wanting us to sign on for a tour. After a bit of negotiation, we decided a tour would make it easier to get around, so we signed up for 2 days, 2 nights. That night's hotel was included in the package, so we went up to our "4 star" hotel room and fell asleep.

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast and met our tour guide at 9.30am, who took us to meet with the rest of the tour. Altogether we had 22 people on the bus and they brought us in to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. We had a bit of a late start due to some arguing which I'll explain later, but we finally got into the park around 11.30. It was beautiful! Zhangjiajie, if you don't know, is famous for its sandstone mountains. Peaks, really. They're these 'small' bits of rock jutting up from the ground to amazing heights. Thousands of them. Rivers weave around the base and the peaks are covered in trees, moss, and other foliage.

For the next 3 hours we walked through these peaks following one of the rivers. For the first half, we followed the guide who pointed out famous peaks shaped to look like different things. Turtles, a mother holding a baby, men picking herbs, and the Monkey King all came to life, shaped from the mountains and trees. The second half was a walk on our own, at our own pace once we were pointed down a specific path. This was the part I liked the most. We strolled along just enjoying the scenery.

One fun thing about this area was the monkeys. There were hundreds of monkeys wandering this area. Now, I've seen monkeys (baboons, specifically) up close and personal before. But I've never seen them in their natural habitat, wandering in troops wherever they please. It was quite enjoyable watching them and seeing how close they would come to humans. We had to guard our oranges though.

The rest of that day was quite disappointing and part of the reason I was upset with our tour. We hopped back on the bus and they took us to lunch (no problem with that, although it wasn't all that tasty). However, the rest of the afternoon was wasted. They took us to get a 'foot massage', which was, in reality, a sales pitch for herbal medicine and a time to get us to buy souvenirs. Following that we went to a tea shop, where we were given a taste of 3 different kinds of tea and another sales pitch. Then we went to the hotel, checked in, were given an hour to 'rest' and then fed dinner and told to be there for breakfast at 7.00 the next morning.

The second day was a day of highs and lows. It was the biggest disappointment of the tour, which actually turned out to be the biggest boon. It was also the most exciting, and the most sad. Let me explain. Due to a quirk of Chinese tours, Kelly and I split off from the rest of the tour and went alone with a different tour guide. They were going to Yuanjiajie and taking the tram up to the top of 天子山 (Tianzi Shan, Heavenly Mountain). We, on the other hand, were going to climb it. And we did.

First we went to 十里画廊 (Shi Li Hua Lang, Ten Mile Walk), which led up to the base of 天子山. I realized at the end of the day that it is called ’Ten Mile Walk' because that's how far it is to the top of the mountain.... This was probably the most scenic part of out walk because, unfortunately, it was extremely foggy that day. The mountains were beautiful shrouded in fog as they were...what we could see of them, anyway. Once we reached the base it was climb, climb, climb. 5000 meters up. 7,500 steps, give or take.

The first half of the climb we were followed by 2 men carrying a sedan chair and every time we stopped to take a rest they would say 'Sit, sit!' Well, actually, they would say '坐,坐' but it amounts to the same. I don't think they believed a foreigner was going to climb all the way, and once they were convinced I was, I'm pretty sure they still believed Kelly would want to sit. After about 5 minutes of them following I started to smell smoke and realized they were smoking. Now, usually I don't care if other people smoke, but here I was, in the middle of a beautiful National Park, climbing up a mountain and enjoying nature with 2 people following me that I really didn't want following me - and then they started smoking. I was pissed. My Chinese is improving, but still not quite good enough that I could say what I wanted, and have them understand me clearly the first time, so I asked Kelly to translate for me. It basically amounted to, "If you smoke anywhere near me, not only will I never hire you, or pay you any money, but I'll send you back to the bottom rather abruptly". Not sure if she translated directly for me, but the point was made and they sullenly put out their cigarettes and continued to doggedly follow us.

Once they stopped, my enjoyment quickly improved. The hike was difficult and tiring, but it was fun. And as we got higher, the fog got thicker and thicker. By the time we reached the top, we could barely see 10 feet ahead of us. This was the sad part. Tianzi Shan is supposed to be absolutely beautiful from the top, and I didn't get to see any of it. There was a picture of what it was supposed to look like, and I took a picture of that, but I wish I could have seen it in person. There were shops, gardens and monuments at the top and we explored for a while and then met back up with our tour group. Then turned around and walked back down.

By the time we got back to the bus, we were both exhausted. We made one more stop at a 土家 specialty store (土家, Tujia, are the local minority in Hunan) and then finally were returned to the city. That night we explored a bit, ate some crab and slept at a little hotel we found. The next day, Kelly grabbed the train at noon to go home for a wedding and I stayed to explore a bit more. I walked around the city, checked out a park, climbed to the top of a nearby hill for some pictures, talked with a bunch of locals that stopped to talk to me, and generally had a fun time wandering before heading to the airport and returning to Shanghai.

Those are the facts. Thoughts and feelings will follow later.

End of Semester

The semester has just officially ended and I have submitted my grades. Classes are over and I find myself with a lot of free time and very little to do. I'm looking for some part time jobs to fill up my time (and get just a bit of extra money to help with traveling), but haven't found much so far. Of course, I just started looking yesterday, so I have to have some patience. I'm already missing work. I love teaching, I love working with these kids. They're so enthusiastic and willing to learn (aside from a very few exceptions); I'm so glad that I came here this year and took the job with Shanghai Finance University instead of EF.

新年快乐! Happy New Year!

Well, its now officially 2010 in China and New York (but not yet Kansas). Another year has begun and I haven't decided on my resolutions as of yet. My sister is 21 years old, by my clock. And what am I going to do today? Go swimming. Yeah for indoor heated pools!


It's been a long time since I've written, but I can only claim ... er, well ... a combination of being rather busy and quite lazy when I do have free time.

I spent another Thanksgiving away from home this year: my fourth out-of-country Thanksgiving in 3 different countries. I'm getting quite used to it now and, although it will always be hard to live up to the first experience, I really like introducing new people to the holiday. I invited a few of my students this year, as I wrote about before. Altogether, I had 15 guests and cooked the food for everyone. Kelly and I spent most of the day preparing and cooking - I even cooked a chicken and stuffing in a toaster oven (turned out pretty well too!) - and then I slowly cleaned up over the following week. Although to my shame there were still a few dishes left when the Ayi came on Wednesday...

I believe my students enjoyed themselves, and I know the Danish teachers I invited did - they've been talking about doing something similar in the future. I also had a friend from Scotland by (Gary, the one I randomly bumped into in People's Square) along with his new Korean girlfriend, Rosaria. I think my favorite part of the night was after most people left and the four of us sat together drinking the leftover wine and just chatting. A great end to a fun day.

The school I'm working for really takes good care of the foreign teachers here. A few weeks back they took all us foreign teachers out to see a movie (2012) and then to a really nice dinner. The whole outing probably cost around 3000 yuan and it was really nice to relax with everyone together and get to know them better, even though 3 of them were transient teachers who come and go (exchange program with a Uni in Copenhagen).

Beyond that, I'm just getting on and continuing to learn Mandarin. I surprised myself the other day by being involved in a conversation with a couple of shopkeepers and random customers at a nearby convenience store. It wasn't until I walked out of the store that I realized I had been talking to them in Chinese for a good 5 minutes. Not perfect fluent conversation of course - I stumbled around in my speech and had trouble understanding them at times - but it was still a coherent conversation in the end. Gives me some hope for the future.

I have to work on Christmas day (not that that's a really big deal for me), but I do actually get New Years day off. It will be fun to see how China celebrates the Western New Year. I'm expecting a lot of fireworks. Too bad the Bund is still under construction for the upcoming Expo - it would really be something to sit along the river and watch the fireworks from such a beautiful vantage point. Oh well, something to look forward to in the future...

Chinese Thanksgiving: Come and gone and still yet to come

I've realized that over the last 5 years, I've been in the US for 1 Thanksgiving, and that Thanksgiving was spent at the home of some good friends in Colorado, so its been quite a while since I've had Thanksgiving at home. I've become used to it - its become a time of friends as well as family for me - but I still miss Thanksgiving at home. My first experience abroad I wrote about on this blog: Thanksgiving in Cork. That year set a wonderful example for overseas holiday celebration. We had Tintreach and Tiorneach, Magic Turkey Bags, and a whole host of people eager to put the dinner together and celebrate. Since then, I've been the motivator for the overseas Thanksgivings, and although I always have fun, I still reminisce over that Irish smorgasbord (and Kevin eating so much he threw up...)

This year, although Thanksgiving has already passed and I've celebrated in my own little way and vicariously through family and friends, I still haven't had my dinner. I've planned a Thanksgiving dinner for next Saturday, December 5. I've invited 7 students (one from each of my classes, chosen by competition to be fair), my colleagues, my boss, and a friend from Scotland. This year will lack the camaraderie of years past: Ireland, Scotland, and even that small little dinner I had with Kelly and Weili last year. It will be more of a teaching experience with the students. Aside from Kelly, I have no really close friends here yet, so its hard to get such a gathering together. Still, it will be fun, and I can't wait. I'll play Alice's Restaurant, cook a whole bunch of food, and have fun. Even though I can't find any turkey...

As for other things, I find it interesting how my understanding of mandarin is changing. At the beginning, I was learning a lot of "useful" phrases along with as much vocabulary, characters and grammar as I could fit in. For example, one phrase I learned was "cash or card" ... In mandarin 现金还是刷卡?Now, as I'm learning more about the language, I look back at some of these phrases and am amused by the direct English translation. For example, the above phrase is translated literally as "now gold or swipe card". As a closet linguist and mediaevalist, I find phrases like this that demonstrate the evolution of the language quite fascinating.