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Friday, March 31, 2006

Reflection -- two months in China

China. I see this vast country much differently than I did before my opportunity to live and teach in Wuhan.

Before, China was all about the place.

I thought of China as the Great Wall, the Three Gorges and the massive dam built to tame the Yangtze River, Beijing, Shanghai...all the locations most Westerners think about. While I've had the opportunity to visit all these sites during my time here, they no longer define China to me.

Today, China is all about its people.

When I think about China the images that flash through my mind are the faces of my Chinese friends: Min and her family, Cathy, Jessie, Shaw and Jane, Lily, Zhang Ping, Yun Aiqin, Britannia, David, my International Marketing students and the kind folks in Shanghai including Dr. Wang, Amelia AKA "Professor of Shopping", Alex, Rebecca, Helen and their incredibly wonderful driver.

I also think of my new Western friends with whom I have had the chance to share so many trials and triumphs of learning to live in a totally different culture. Their faces and the times we've experienced flash through my mind: Bob and Lorraine, Marilyn, the folks at Mr. Mai's, boy Tyler, Paul, Katie, and Serge.

As I step on the plane today in Beijing to head home, my thoughts are of all the people I'm leaving here in China. And while this fact makes me incredibly sad—more than I could have ever imagined—I am comforted by one thing. China's people have changed me...and I know I must return.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"The First Ring"

Lyn, our tour guide, was INCREDIBLE. Part storyteller, part entertainer and just downright Ms. Personality; she did a wonderful, wonderful job showing us her home of Beijing. We began our morning at the Summer Palace which is about 1.5 hours' ride out (less if you aren't gridlocked on the freeway) of Beijing. The Summer Palace...it's pretty incredible and I can't imagine it in all its glory when the trees and flowers are in bloom. Here's where the storytelling Lyn kept us in suspense as she engaged us in the drama about the original 'dragon lady' empress who was so obsessed with power she killed her son and nephew to retain control for 40 years.

Afterwards we returned to the heart of the city: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. These are also inside what's known as the "first ring" of Beijing. The city was originally walled and as it has grown and radiated out they have added over the centuries additional rings, so there are a total of five rings in Beijing. It's how you gain perspective on where something is. My hotel is within the first ring.

My Chinese friends in Wuhan had advised me that northern China was more focused on size and bigness, while in southern China everything is more 'delicate.' I now see the wisdom of their words.

I was overwhelmed with how BIG Tiananmen Square is. And Chairman Mao's mausoleum is impressively big (bigger than the Yorba Linda library!). And when it comes to huge, the Forbidden City is mammoth.

My feet were dragging by the time we made it back to our bus and my role as tourist came to an end.

The Last Supper

Returning from a long day of walking and sightseeing I was really hungry. After the driver deposited me at my hotel I decided to see what its restaurant offered: mostly American food and at exorbitant prices. (The cheapest meal was 68 RMB...that amount will feed 5 people very nicely in Wuhan) Unwilling to have my "last supper" in China replicate what I will be eating shortly I decided to explore the neighborhood. So, I headed towards the lobby door.

I saw a gaggle of Western tourists and a handful of Chinese visitors leave simultaneously. The Westerners turned left, towards the KFC, Sizzler, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, offerings. The Chinese folks turned right. It was a 'no brainer' in my mind. I turned right. I figured they would know where to fill my desire for rice, the green vegetable Lorraine and I always order, and bit of fried pork.

Correct decision!

Two blocks away they turned into a restaurant where every face was Chinese. I entered and quickly learned no one spoke English. Now, if I had done this in December I would have turned around and made an escape. But, because my Chinese and Western friends have taught me how, as an illiterate, to order and I have learned what foods I like and don't like, I didn't think too much of it.

Making a hand gesture to see a menu and holding up one finger indicating I'm alone, the waitress showed me to the only vacant table in the place. Fortunately, the menu had photos so I could recognize many of the items they had since I'd already experienced them before.

I found what I was looking for and pointed at them when she returned.

As the food made its way out to my table I learned of one slight mistake in my ordering. The fried pork was half red peppers! Oh my, my glasses or the photos did me in. But, I persevered reasoning that a lot of hot, spicy food was just what my cold needed. It's perfect for clearing the head!

While eating the 20-something folks across at the two tables followed my dining with great interest. Clearly, they were looking at what I ordered—one boy's eyes betrayed his thoughts when he saw me eating pork and chili—and the girl smiled as I used my chopsticks in the proper manner.

On the way out a small boy, about 4 or 5, stopped by my table and gave me a toothy grin and said something I took to be a greeting. Being a foreigner I'm now accustomed to people walking up to practice English, asking what country I'm from or using hand gestures that they want their photo taken with a foreigner. I don't know what the deal was with today, but three little boys of the same age for some reason took a shine to me—this is totally mysterious to me Marilyn since it's always you the little kids love, but you weren't here so I guess I would do—as one boy indicated he wanted his photo taken with me during the tour.

Well, I finished my meal—it was enough for two people so yes I left about half the food—and got the check: 32 RMB. Smiling I paid the waitress and left. I must admit I was a bit pleased with myself for not taking the easy road, but tackling the tougher road...and it made all the difference in dining delights! (Lorraine, that line is for you!)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Destination: The Great Wall

At 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening someone from the travel agency called to advise me that I should be ready for pick up Wednesday morning at 7:00. Swell. The hotel starts serving the 68R MB "free breakfast" that I'd already pre-paid at 6:30 and I wasn't about to lose out on this, being of Scottish descent. So, I promptly swooped down at the appointed hour; they opened precisely at 6:30 and I was out and in my room awaiting "the call" from the driver when it rang at 6:50.

I rendezvoused with the bus that was collecting an assortment of tourists for our day together. These folks include: a 50's aged couple from New York, three young women who recently graduated from medical school in Maryland and were about to start residency, a 30-something Chinese couple who spoke no English, a late 50's man from Malaysia whose grandparents left China, a young Hong Kong man in his first job out of college who was now a resident from Australia, the driver (who I felt safe with), our female guide who spoke good English and yours truly.

The only thing I knew about this tour was that it included the Ming tombs and the Great Wall. I never imagined everything else that was thrown in between. The young man from Australia and I had a lot of fun of the "in between" items in our running dialog today.

First, we stopped at a jade factory and massive store. Shopping opportunity! I bought nothing. Next, we visited the Ming tombs. However, our next stop was rather fascinating. Thanks to Chairman Mao, Chinese naturopathic and acupuncture experienced a major renaissance in the 50's. As an outgrowth of this, there's a sprawling place dedicated to expanding this knowledge to other countries (I think this is where my chiropractor studied) and they are very proud of this fact. We were ushered down the halls and into a small lecture room where a Chinese man explained the high level concepts of the healing arts. Then two doctors and their assistants in their white smocks appeared. Apparently our ying and yang was about to be examined and the prognosis and remedy prescribed. I declined. Interestingly, the amount of all Rx recommendations ran between 420 – 480 RMB.

Afterwards we moved to a cloisonné factory and after watching them at work we got, yes, more opportunity to shop. I bought nothing. (Having been in China I now know the going prices for many things; alas, these items were 3x as expensive as they should have been and signed that said "no bargaining.") This activity was closely followed with lunch which happened to adjoin the shopping mall. The Great Wall—my reason to go on this tour—was next.

We arrived at 2:00 p.m. We were to leave at 4:00 p.m. Initially I thought, swell, two hours for the one thing I wanted to see today. However, that was sufficient time since I was ready to depart at 3:30. As we wound our way through the proactive proprietors our tour guide took our additional money—yes, this wasn't included in the price—to pay the 60 RMB to get a ride up to the middle level of the wall and thus decrease our strenuous walking. I was very willing to part with the sum given my last experience in climbing stairs. Nothing prepared me for what happened next.

As we walked through what looked like an ancient walk way we strode straight into what I can only describe as a misplaced carnival ride. They had individual cars on tracks aned you jumped into one and they pulled you up the hill. All of us were flabbergasted. And, I must confess the ex-amusement park employee that I am had flash backs. This was like standing in line at Knott's Berry Farm to climb aboard the Log Ride, only as a solo. Only there was no water splash at the end. Not quite what I was expecting at the Great Wall.

We clamored out of the vehicles and proceeded to wind our way through half of humanity. (I had always seen the Great Wall without people on it, silly me to think it would be desolate when I arrived.) The steps were old since they were well worn in many places, but it was clearly rebuilt. It took about 30 minutes to crest the first major landmark in the wall. Dutifully all of us on our bus took pictures of each other. The wind was blasting and making my runny nose runnier and my contacts scream. So, I opted to return and ride the amusement park ride to the parking lot and wait for the group. I had accomplished my mission: to walk the Great Wall and have a photo to prove it.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Off to Beijing

When I left Wuhan and my new friends in December it was sad, but I knew I'd return in March. Today when I left I didn't know when—or if—I would see my new Chinese and Western friends. So, it was a very sad parting...all I can say it, thank goodness for email.

Britannia arrived at 10:30 with the driver to take me to the airport. Lorraine saw me off—I will miss you very much, my friend—and we began the 1.5 hour drive to the airport. Upon arrival Britannia helped me check in. Like last time, I was informed my bag was over weight. How much or why wasn't included in the request for money: 230 RMB. Britannia translated this to me and apparently my quick and loud response, while in English, to the woman who uttered these words made an impact and the price immediately lowered to 150 RMB. I knew the bag was lighter than in December when they made me pay this extortion, but decided to just shell it out and get it over with.

The flight was uneventful. And, when I landed the magical sign appeared: Laird Magee Tyler. A young woman, Amanda, held it aloft as I walked from the baggage claim area. She swept me off to the car that awaited us and we boarded and set off for the Holiday Inn in downtown Beijing. (My room looks like "anywhere USA" except for the electrical outlets....quite a change from my apartment on the university campus.)

Somewhat desensitized to driving conditions here, I use the 'don't watch' approach. I had, however, noticed our driver was, in my opinion, maintaining a proctology view of the preceding car's bumper and showed a slow brake/foot reaction to match. Rather typical, so I didn't give it much more thought. Until, that is, he crashed into the car in front of us going at about 25 MPH. Now, how many tourists can claim to have been in a car accident on the Beijing freeway at rush hour? I'm now a member of that elite club.

Having witnessed as a bystander a similar accident in Wuhan, I wondered if the response would be the same and we'd be here all night with numerous police officers. Our driver exited the car and began discussing the experience with the woman who emerged. Her car wasn't damaged much, but I could see the hood of ours took a major hit with it jutting into the air by about two feet. The whole discussion took about 15 minutes. My only worry was being rear-ended, but that wasn't a problem since the traffic came to a stand still and annoyed drivers let go with their horns to express dismay at us since we served as the cork to the traffic flow.

I was told my guide would call me tonight. I've not left my hotel room since arrival; it's now 9:00 p.m. and I've not heard anything...so, we'll see if I'm off in the morning to the Great Wall or not. Tune in tomorrow.

The endless climb

Between the glare of the sun, dust, and cigarette smoke my contacts were screaming at me by the time we returned to our boat, so I moved to my glasses. Mistake. We were to experience the crescendo of our day on the Yanghze that evening and little did I know how much I would pine for my contacts.

After having a "late lunch" at 4:30—yes we paid extra—Michael came to collect us at 6:00 to see an ancient temple at White King City. Applying our new strategy for disembarking by purposefully being slow and getting at the back of the lemming brigade, we left the ship, walked the gang plank and saw 300 stairs awaiting us. Now, these weren't ordinary stairs. Marilyn said previously experience them and said there had been more to climb in October, but since the Yangtze had swallowed the ones lower down, we were just facing 300 ancient stone steps. What this means is my Western sized foot is nearly as big as each stair and sometimes bigger. And, it's the steepest staircase I've ever seen or climbed.

Michael bounded up the stairs. Marilyn and I trundled behind like little old ladies huffing and puffing and sweating like pigs. As we climbed I thought, uh oh, with all the lemmings pushing us upward this will be total hell when we return in the dark, since I didn't expect them to be lighted. (I was right)

We reached the top of the hill and unlike the Rocky movie, we had no energy to rejoice. Next, we walked through more shops with enthusiastic proprietors and boarded a bus to go up the hill towards the temple. Marilyn questioned Michael about this. She knew from experience the bus she had ridden on prior trips deposited her at the door. But, no, this time we would be plopped at the bottom of yet another staircase climb of 150-200 more steep stairs....and very proactive vendors.

The lemmings took to the stairs and I nearly toppled several times as did Marilyn. Needless to say that by the time we stood at the top—after having Marilyn snap my photo below a 153.5 meter sign that would disappear under the waters of the Yangtze by September 2006—I wasn't in the best of spirits. I did, however, consider the just rewards of the stairs being permanently swallowed by the Yangtze. All I could think about was my return trip down nearly 500 stairs in the dark with my glasses on and my sense of balance compromised.

Michael kicked into tour guide mode and began the history of the temple. I told the two of them I would sit and recover from my experience. After 20 minutes I heard the boat give its warning blast. I knew I had to get down the stairs before the big rush started, because that was all I needed to topple down the stone stairs in the dark. So, I headed back figuring we'd all meet back at the boat.

We did. Marilyn I believe knew I'd make it back by myself, but Michael was frantic. When I finally crossed the threshold of our boat, I tried to tell the front desk my name, since I knew Michael had to say we were all there before we took off. Alas, no one spoke English, so I just stayed in the smoke filled room and waited. In about 15 minutes Marilyn arrived and she called Michael on his cell phone.

That evening done, we went to our room and removed sweat soaked clothing. I had an ominous feeling...this is exactly what happens when I get a cold. Sure enough, that's what happened.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Lemmings on the loose

On my first trip to China in December I quickly learned the difference in personal space between Western and Asian cultures. So, I am accustomed to this. Also, I have experienced what being caught up in a REAL crowd is like, both in Wuhan and Shanghai. However, the introduction of a being on a Chinese citizens' tour of their wonderful country wasn't an initiation I had anticipated.

The next day was Saturday and we began our fully-packed adventure up all three of the Three Gorges. Michael came to fetch us and get us downstairs where he said we'd board a smaller boat and then would transfer to wooden boats. He acted like we were in a hurry so we just followed along. Descending to the first floor Marilyn and I quickly learned we hadn't even begun docking procedures and already we were caught in a crowd of eager tourists who wanted to be at their destination now.

Looking around, since I tower over nearly everyone, I could see we were at least a good 15 minutes away from any chance of disembarking. As we stood there feeling like two sardines slowly squeezed into the can, Marilyn mentioned how dangerous a situation this was. She's right. It was. It's then I started thinking about the ship's balance, of all 300 passengers concentrated in one place. I arrested my thoughts; can't do anything right now, I reasoned. Closer and closer everyone bunched together as the pent up anticipation built. Elbows, knees, hands, body odor, cigarette smoke...it was a bit much for me. However, I hadn't anticipated what would happen next.

As we docked the sardines turned into spawning salmon, desperate to fight their way up stream to spawn. The door opened and all I can say is I have an appreciation for what it must be to be a lemming...hurling forward with the force and velocity of the collective. Being caught up in this lemming lunge is what I would imagine a sinking ship or a building on fire would be like...swept along without much control of your personage. A totally alien experience, but a normal one within this culture, Marilyn and I discussed—after we survived the beach assault—how to change our strategy with Michael.

We continued our travels and switched to another boat. Michael came by to tell us that we would dock at several places and then go to the wooden boats. Then, unexpected by us, he got off the boat. Marilyn and I discussed his departure...something totally unexpected since it was our understanding he was our guide and would be with us at all times. Hum...

Fortunately, Marilyn has lived in China for 6 years and while she hasn't mastered the language, she has been 'around the block' enough times, and this made her 4th trip up the 3 Gorges, we felt relatively okay.

In about an hour we docked and we assaulted the docks which was lined with food and trinket sellers. Confused, we disembarked, not knowing when the boat would take off, since we don't speak Chinese. So, we did what a lemming does, follow the rest of the pack. It was interesting to see what the Chinese purchased as souvenirs. Neither of us saw anything of interest so we walked around until we heard the boat's horn blare and made haste to the ship. It pushed out quickly and we headed towards our next destination. About another hour down one of the gorges we headed. Again, we disembarked, but this time all the other tourists received a ticket for something. Hum...is this another thing that's "extra" for us? Well, of course!

We opted not to figure out how much the gatekeepers of the temple wanted to add to our trip and decided to just hang around, take photos of each other and discuss the vendors. Marilyn remarked how this, her 4th trip up the 3 Gorges, was yet again very different than all three previous visits. And she was able to maintain this record throughout the trip. In fact, I would ask her where do you think we'll go, or what time do you think we'll be a certain place...and every time she was able to point out she had been wrong. Another dimension of conversation for us, since we both have a lot in common—lived in Alaska, from Oregon, George Fox University, teaching—and it seemed to grow with each passing hour.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"That costs extra"

Our home for the next two days, the Min Shan, is a four-level Chinese tourist boat that holds about 300 sightseers. It was tied up on the other side of a ship undergoing refurbishment and we walked up a small, wooden slat across the water to gain access to the first boat, walked through that ship and gained entry to ours. Entering the first level of the Min Shan my head had about 2.5" inches to spare from the ceiling. Topping out at 5' 9" I can't imagine what befalls tall Westerners.

Our "first class" accommodations were on the fourth level and we followed Michael as he took to the stairs. Arriving at #405 we entered to a small, yet functional room which featured two small, Chinese beds, a Western toilet/shower area and a large window that ran the entire length of the outer wall. Hum...this seems okay. As we started to settle in, we learned the room's nuances.

It seems both Marilyn and I had been psychic. We both brought different items that apparently aren't included: I brought toilet paper (left over from my African safari) and she brought a hand towel. In examining the shower, we decided to suspend the need of looking for bath towels. And we quickly learned our toilet had a mind of its own. It took hours to complete one flush and on our last 24 hours aboard it decided to take a vacation from its strenuous work.

With our things properly stowed we sat on our beds and talked with Michael about our trip. He drew a small map of our destination and the stops along the way. Nearly an hour had passed before he obtained a key to our room—he handed it to me saying he had put 50 RMB down as a deposit, so don't lose it. We suggested going on the 4th level deck to check out the sights. It's then we learned another item that 'costs extra.'

Access to the first class deck wasn't included. Dumbfounded, Michael told us we were expected to pay 60 RMB each to walk on the deck of our "first class" luxury accommodations. We balked. Thinking we'd discuss over dinner we asked when it was. Hum, oh, that's extra too! After many questions and answers that needed more questions from us to get closer to answers we learned we could order 'a la carte' off of a Chinese menu that Michael read parts of it to us, adding his suggestions. Settling on dinner we learned we would eat at 6:00. Our meal was ready at 7:00 and we walked to the 2nd floor to dine.

Along the way we passed the other accommodations. Each room had three sets of two bunk beds each; the Eastern toilet was down the hall. I gathered as a two-some, we would have shared our experience with other tourists. Not exactly what I would have wanted, so comparatively speaking, we were in "first class." Perspective does wonders.

After our meal of rice, spicy eggplant, tofu/fermented egg and a pork/vegetable dish we decided not having access to the deck wasn't the way to go, so Marilyn decided to negotiate. She got Michael to agree for 100 RMB total we would do this. After enjoying the deck he asked for the money and gave us some sort of hand written receipt. Throughout the trip Marilyn kept saying it just didn't make any sense and surely the other non-Western passengers didn't have that added fee. But, who knows...another item lost in translation.

We retired to our room and prepared for rest. Settled into our beds our boat began its first passage through the single lock just 30 km upriver from Yichang. It was too dark to enjoy the experience so we decided to look at it on our return trip.

Sometime around 2:00 a.m. we awoke to the creaking and grinding of our passage through the five locks at the 3 Gorges Dam. We burrowed into our beds under a single blanket. By now we learned the heater didn't work. Luckily, I had packed my Cocoon sleeping bag insert, so I had a bit more heat retained throughout the night. We awoke to the loud speaker playing Chinese music the next morning, announcing the next step in our adventure.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bus trip to Yichang

On Friday I met Marilyn at the International Education office and a man from the Wuhan travel agency accompanied us to the bus station. As we neared the busy road that cuts through the East and West campus, the man turned to us and asked us if want to take a cab; it will be quicker than a bus, he informed us. Marilyn was suspicious, having lived in China six years. But, we agreed to do this. And, of course, when we arrived at the bus station he told us to pay the cab driver. Hum...this "fully paid trip" had an auspicious start, but it also served as the harbinger of one of our themes on this Three Gorges weekend adventure: "that's extra charge!"

We boarded the nearly full bus and took the last two remaining seats next to each other. I folded into the seat—it seems all busses are built for Asian leg length—and we began our five hour odyssey to Yichang which is the port city and entry to the Three Gorges. On the way out Marilyn pointed to all the places of interest as we went through the other two districts of Wuhan I'd not visited.

As we left the Wuhan city limits the number of blaring car horns went from zero to infinity. I mentioned the increase and Marilyn informed me there's a new law in Wuhan about horn honking. Apparently it's against the law now to do such a thing. So, this heralded our city exit and my introduction to horn etiquette.

On our four lane expressway, two lanes going each way, our bus driver neared a truck in our right lane and started to pass him. The dialog, based upon my translation, began:

Bus: "honk, honk, honk" = "I'm behind you and going to pass"
Truck: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "Okay, I understand"
Bus: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "I'm passing you'
Truck: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "Ah yes, I see you are!"
Bus: "honk, honk, honk, honk" = "I just passed you"
Truck: "honk, honk, honk" = "So I see...have a nice day!"

It's a practice repeated for every vehicle passing, give or take a line of dialog. As I adjusted to this noise, the woman who served as the "monitor" for the bus crackled on the very loud, loud speaker. Thank goodness Paul prepared me for this the day before and I wisely packed my earplugs. Poor Marilyn, alas, she did not have noise reduction devices.

We determined the loud speaker woman must have stated our journey and methodology for our travel. Afterwards, she broke into song. Then the microphone started to be passed around. This was above the movie that was blaring on a small TV suspended from the ceiling near the bus driver (my head located it when I boarded). All of a sudden I had flashbacks to a '60's TV show called "Sing Along with Mitch Miller." Oh my goodness, it's going to be a long bus ride.

Happily enjoying the relative peace my earplugs gave, I gazed out the window and watched the passing scenes outside our speeding bus. This was the China I had seen in photos.

Farm after farm passed by; the scene repeated itself an endless number of times. A lone water buffalo slowly pulled a single edged plow with his farmer friend, whose head bore a round, pointed straw hat. Farm upon farm. Row upon row upon row upon row. Twice I saw a baby water buffalo following the farmer who followed the plow who followed the big water buffalo through the plowed fields. Clearly, it's never too early for on the job training of the youngsters.

Two things about these scenes struck me. First, the consistency. The pattern. Rice fields. Lotus fields. Muddy land being worked with farmer and water buffalo. Step back in time and you'd see the same image, it made no difference in century or dynasty. Timeless.

Second, the water buffalo here clearly are polar opposite of their name only cousins out on the African savannah. The Chinese water buffalo seemed tame, almost pet-like. The farmer and water buffalo shared a common bond. Needing no barns, most were un-tethered in the fields if they weren't working. In contrast, African water buffalo are among the most unpredictable and are #2 killers of unsuspecting humans, ranking just after the #1, hippos.

As I thought about these sights we drew near to our destination, Yichang. Almost immediately buildings appeared and with them traffic and street noise began. By Chinese standards Yichang is a small town with 1 million in the city and 4 million in the surrounding area. We sped through a few streets, wound left, right, left, right and found ourselves at the bus stop. A smiling young Chinese man held a sign with both of our names, so I waved through the window. Our guide for the next 2.5 days, Michael helped us with our bags and we followed him about two city blocks to the steps that led us down to the Yangtze River and our next leg of the journey.