In which school begins and weekends still feel like summer...
15.09.2008 25 °C
After a less-than-exciting week of “in-service” during which I became acquainted with a new crop of weird colleagues, did a bit of work and a lot of socializing, plans began to form to satisfy the dire need to get off campus (already). In a series of evening chats while drinking copious quantities of Yanjing beer and inhaling pack upon pack of cheap Chinese cigarettes, a number of my gentlemen colleagues determined that our apartment building roof was in need of a barbecue grill. They visited a local chuanr (meat kebab) establishment, obtained advice and a sketch, and then put in a custom order with a grill fabricator in town. A few days later, a five foot long grill was installed on the roof, perched atop a neat stack of scavenged four by fours. The typical Chinese chuanr grill is very narrow, for grilling meats on sticks and grill baskets of fish laid above hot coals. Grill men stand over their prized instruments, waving woven fans to distribute heat evenly and keep the coals burning.
To welcome the school year and the shiny new grill, the boys held a potluck barbecue for the teaching staff. I was a bit worried as, a few days before the event, the sign-up list read, mostly, “beer,” “beer,” “my handsome ass,” “a toilet roll,” and “beer.” However, as the party started (to the some old-school rap on iPod and under a typically clouded sky), friends began to roll in bearing beer, and also chicken wings, pork and chicken kebabs, salads, bread, fruit and more beer. I made lamb meatballs with pine nuts and cilantro (on kebab sticks) with a cilantro-yogurt dipping sauce, a huge variety of marinated vegetables, and flatbread dough. The meatballs had a tendency to slide off the sticks, but were still pretty amazing. In the typical improvisational style of all attempts at “Western” celebrations in China, everyone stood around with his or her own pair of chopsticks and ate off of communal plates that were passed from hand to hand. I highly recommend this as a plate-saving technique at your next barbecue! The grill men did a superb job of cooking the food to perfection, while wearing chef’s jackets that the grill-maker threw in for free!
The night ended with a short rainstorm that sent everyone huddling under the very small covered area of the roof, and then a guitar sing-a-long in the dark after the rain passed.
The following day, Natalie, Brad and I set out for the Forbidden City. In the year I’ve been in Beijing, I had not visited this most historic of all landmarks. We figured that post-Olympics would be the ideal time to go, as the sprucing-up would be complete, and the giant crowds mostly returned home. Although the front of the City was hidden behind green-fabric-covered scaffolding for a ‘tween Olympics and Paralympics touch-up, the rest of the Palace Museum was welcoming visitors in reasonable numbers.
After a year of reminding myself that I really must visit this landmark, I suppose I had built it up in my head. It is the largest collection of preserved ancient buildings in China, and home to the Ming (constructed 1406) and Qing (1644-1911; the last dynasty) Emperors. However, they are mostly empty buildings. Numerous, enormous, dusty, empty buildings. Some museum exhibits show bits and bobs of furniture, jewelry and clothing of the emperors and concubines, and most halls have a throne and some side tables, but insight into the lives and workings of a functioning palace are really lacking. Signs in English did make it clear that life was boring, and this or that cavernous building was where some or other emperor changed his underpants during the new moon that fell on even numbered days in years of the Tiger, but overall, I wanted more. How did the concubines live? Did they get along with one another? What did they eat? How did they cook it? What did the dining table look like? Where did they keep the chopsticks and how many pairs did they have and what were they made of? Where was the royal outhouse? What did they read? What games did they play? What did the children do for fun? How did they communicate across the vast expanse of the palace? These questions remain unanswered.
The buildings themselves are beautiful and well-maintained. I especially love the roofs and ceilings. The gardens and man-made rock sculptures and fish ponds are also quite pretty. But it must have been a dreadfully boring life…
After the Forbidden City, while looking for a reasonably priced restaurant with a picture and/or English menu (I can’t read, you see), we happened across a beautiful little park. The green space featured a quiet river with white marble bridges spanning it at regular intervals. There were beautiful flowering plants, benches, sculptures and paths all dappled with some genuine sunlight that managed to fight through the clouds. Natalie and I are going to have our respective wedding photos done here (after we have custom silk embroidered wedding gowns made), and have our husbands added digitally at a later date (like, when we find husbands).
Then, the school year commenced, with a bumper crop of tenth graders. For the first week, the new students chose their elective classes by attending all of them and trying out all of the teachers for the sciences, history, economics and philosophy. I had all 250 tenth graders for a series of lessons that didn’t really matter. I only managed to remember a few names, such as “That’s nice, Jack” and “Sit down, Henry.” I hate the first week of school…
The following weekend, Natalie, a French-Canadian history teacher named Mathieu, and I went back into the city for some shopping and culture adventures. We wandered down some cute shopping streets and then around Houhai lake – one of the best areas in the city for a stroll. Tiny boutiques and bars line the narrow streets leading to, and encircling a large, man-made lake near the center of the city. The lake boasts a duck island, paddle boats, glistening lotus plants and big-bellied Chinese men swimming in their skivvies. Following our stroll, we visited a huge clothing market near the zoo that surprised us with their selection of good-quality leather shoes that sometimes actually came in my size. I haven’t bought any yet, but we will be back. I did buy a copy of a Max Mara knee-length spring/fall coat in a pretty brown floral print. The following day, we went to the Capital Museum. This modern museum is housed in a gorgeous building that features a giant, tilted copper column inside (which itself houses the most Willy Wonka-esque bathrooms – I got woozy walking down the access hallway)! The museum focuses on Chinese history, including Qing dynasty Beijing (complete with dough modeled diorama of street life, and an entire wedding-night bed chamber!), Beijing opera, and a new exhibit on ancient (as old as Neolithic!) artifacts from China. The latter exhibit was packed with hoards of people, but worth it to gaze on extraordinarily early metal-work and soup caldrons that made me hungry.
During previous two forays into the city, I possessed the highest level of Chinese among my friends (which, if you’ve heard my Chinese, is pretty pathetic). I managed to get us fed and transported with minimal embarrassment and error, and even managed to order duck and vegetables off a Chinese-language menu. This is progress.
Week two of school brought more stability: classes were set. I had four sections of about 35 students each that each met four times during the week. I still only know a few names (“Vivian, sit up” and “Shaun, take your hat off,” for example), but the students so far are very well-behaved and interested. I hadn’t realized how far my students from last year progressed in their English abilities over the course of one year, and I had to constantly remind myself to adjust my vocabulary (which, after three years in non-English-speaking areas is ruined anyway) and speaking tempo. Then, just as quickly as they had all arrived, they have all disappeared for two weeks of military training. Miss Boiteau is officially on vacation.
Natalie, Brad, Aaron and I returned to the city on Friday, Paralympics tickets in hand. Beijing has spent nearly as much energy hyping up the Paralympic Games as it did the able-bodied version. The opening ceremony was impressive (far better than the preceding closing ceremony), and featured arm ballet and other beautifully rendered artistic and musical feats that were very inspired and inspiring – all taking note of the special nature of the Paralympics – showing different and creative ways to use the body for dance and acrobatics.
Friday night, I had a most spectacular case of food poisoning (my first case in China, actually – how lucky I have been)! I can’t even name the culprit, having eaten the same dinner as Aaron and Natalie. Who knows…maybe I unthinkingly licked a pole on the bus… But recovery was swift, and the memory of the agony is fading quickly…
We were lucky to obtain tickets to volleyball – sitting and wheelchair rugby (formerly called “murderball”). We watched the Latvian women’s team beat Japan, and then the Iraqi men’s team beat Japan. The sport is played by athletes with paralysis of the lower body or who are without one or both legs. The net is lowered so the bottom edge is on the floor. All players sit (six on each side) on the floor, and their rear ends must remain on the floor during play. Otherwise, the game is just like volleyball. The Japanese teams were the most fun to watch. The women, especially, exuded fun, and were exciting to watch. The team-work was excellent. A “dig” in volleyball – sitting is especially amazing, as players launch themselves backwards (instead of leaping forwards) to return the ball. A downside of these matches came (perhaps predictably) from the spectators. The majority was Chinese, and they showed clear favoritism for the Latvian and Iraqi teams, despite having no strong connection to either. The feeling was that the spectators were not so much cheering for the Latvians and Iraqis than against the Japanese. Aaron leaned forward and politely asked one woman (in Chinese) why she was rooting for the Iraq team. “Because we hate Japan and the Japanese!” she stated loudly in English. Further discussions with nearby spectators yielded history lessons on World War II and the rape of Nanjing, as well as one woman who felt sorry for the people of Iraq. Aaron asked, “What do the actions of the Japanese in WWII have to do with these volleyball players?” No real answer was returned… I tried to remain neutral and to cheer for both teams, but as the games progressed, it became more and more difficult to have fun in the midst of such a negative crowd.
During the Olympics while speaking to my volunteer colleagues, the topic of Sino-Japanese relations arose (this may have been after a discussion of car makes…) and some very typical sentiments about the Japanese were raised. They seem to be almost universally hated by the Chinese because of their actions in 1937 (Google “rape of Nanjing” for a history lesson), even by Chinese who admit to having no relation to any victims of war crimes. Recently, the whole issue was brought to the forefront of many minds again when a new Japanese history book was discovered by the Chinese which did not address or admit the actions of Japan in China. Despite the 70 years since the occupation, the topic appears to be a still-open wound for the second generation removed. The Chinese belive strongly that “Past experience, if not forgotten, is a guide for the future.” I believe that this is an important statement and that the past should be preserved in order to aid in decision-making in the future. But should feelings remaining from past atrocities be thrust upon athletes at an international competition that makes an attempt to be apolitical and to promote world peace (and, especially, such games played by disabled athletes)? I think not. Can we hate the crimes and the criminals of the past but extend welcome to contemporary countrymen as friends and guests? I asked my colleagues, “Will you pass your sentiment towards the Japanese onto your children?” “Yes, so we will never forget the past.” There must be a middle ground: teach the history without the personal emotion; teach love and building good relationships as a way to avoid future conflicts. Perhaps in the next generation…
And following this sporting/cultural education event, we moved on to wheelchair rugby or “murderball.” Played with a volleyball on a basketball court with soccer-width goals on the short ends of the court, wheelchair rugby is played five on five. The aim is for a player to roll over the goal line with the ball in his possession. Opposing teammates block, slam and interfere to keep the team with possession from scoring. Technically, teams are of mixed sex, but only one of the four teams had a woman, and she played for the last thirty seconds of that match. The game is full-contact, and wheelchair maintenance and tipped-over players are the norm. The game is high-scoring and involves a great deal of strategy to avoid lock-ups and to break through defense into the end zone. Australia had one amazing player who was faster, stronger and tougher than anyone else we witnessed that day. The maneuvering is incredible, with tight turns and spins and fast breakaways to score points. This star player was overturned at one point, onto his back. Players previously overturned were righted by the coaches, but this guy flipped himself onto his stomach and then righted himself by pushing against the floor with his arms. It was dazzling. One member of the German team had one complete and one partial arm, and put in an incredible performance as the fastest member of his team, and a whiz at setting up passes and running interference. I am so glad that we could witness these incredible athletes compete in the highest level of their sports – it was more exciting that watching matches during the able-bodied version of the Games.
Sunday brought the Mid-Autumn Festival, a celebration of the harvest and the full moon. We visited the Dongyue Temple, which is dedicated to Tai Shan, a Taoist mountain. Inside, in rooms around the largest courtyard, are dozens of “departments” governing the life of all Taoists. Some sound suspiciously like government bureaus (Department of Papers and Documents) while others have a nature-y slant (Department of Mammals and Department of Aquatic Animals) and still others seem to exist to scare citizens into appropriate behavior (Department of Implementing 15 Kinds of Death and Department of Abortion). Each department features painted plaster statues depicting the judges of our moral character (men, gods and monsters) meting out punishments and decisions on men and women (and sometimes animal-headed people). Each department features a collection box so you can make extra sure that your request to the Department of Hell is duly noted. In addition to these variously bizarre departments, there are several halls of huge plaster gods dressed in saffron embroidered robes, including one hall where you can pray, burn incense, and register with a priest your wish for offspring. Other rooms featured jewelry and headwear (some a strikingly poisonous blue color) from times past, and a very informative exhibit on the origins and ritual of the Mid-Autumn festival.
Once, long ago, the earth had ten suns, but this was hot and chaotic as they always fought and competed with one another. They scorched the earth and caused drought and famine. A great archer named Hou Yi used his bow to shoot down nine of the suns, which made him a hero. The Empress of Heaven rewarded him with an elixir which would allow him to live in the sky among the gods. But Hou Yi had a wife named Chang-e who he loved and didn’t want to leave. So he hid the elixir in his house and told no one but his wife. However, a rascal named Peng Meng found out about the elixir and, when all the men were out hunting, went to Hou Yi and Cheng-e’s house, and forced her to give it to him. Instead, Cheng-e took the elixir herself, and flew up to the sky. To be closer to her love, she stopped at the moon, where she can still be seen today. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, you can see her most clearly, and think about your family far away, or be thankful that they are close by. The holiday is celebrated by eating round food like mooncakes and fruit, leaving offerings for ancestors, painting plaster rabbits riding tigers, and wandering around looking at the moon. (One can also eat a pomelo in order to obtain flawless complexion and find a good husband – I’ll report back on the success of this later.)
Aaron, Natalie and I bought mooncakes, had a delicious dinner in a tiny hutong restaurant (which included moon-themed songs sung beautifully by another patron and answered by Natalie and I singing “Blue Moon” and “Bad Moon Rising”), and wandered the paths of Houhai, people watching and gazing in the general direction of the cloud-obscured moon. As we were sitting by the lake, suddenly, a chilly gale of wind rushed in, blowing leaves off of trees, extinguishing lantern flames and ushering in a hard, cold rain. We dashed into the nearest bar, a sad, little empty place, and ordered some expensive drinks. I drank a mojito – made with lemons. Lemons. Come on, people – just because they have the same name as limes in Chinese doesn’t mean it’s the same fruit!! To be fair, it was quite delicious. We lounged inside until the rain passed and then strolled home, past a man standing in front of his house on a very busy street corner wearing only man panties and chatting away on his mobile phone.