A Travellerspoint blog

I get to go to a wedding!

In which Aaron is named Official Wedding Translator, and so we use this as an excuse to buy fun new clothes.

-5 °C

Yesterday, Aaron and I headed into Beijing to meet up with Steve and Amy (my colleague, the physics teacher, and his wife - as far as the court is concerned, but not officially according to the church, yet) for lunch. After lunching, and a long, pointless wander through one of the fancy shopping malls downtown (Amy bought a shirt; I was bewildered at the variety of jackets available), we met up with Amy's parents, aunt, and wedding host. Aaron will be translating for the host from Chinese to English so Steve, his best man, and his parents have some idea of what's going on. Aaron will also translate Steve's father's toast from English to Chinese. We sat down with Amy's family, had some tea, and discussed the down-to-the-minute itinerary for the church ceremony and traditions at the banquet. The ceremony and traditional gift-giving and speeches at the banquet must be done by noon (but guests can eat and drink for several hours afterwards). The funniest question that was asked was to Steve, "How much can you drink?" The bride and groom are supposed to drink with each guest, and whenever asked. They can pass those drinks along to their wedding party (though Steve and Amy have only one attendant each) or to other friends. Aaron was told not to drink, so luckily, Steve has lots of other colleagues attending! I won't be taking any of those drinks for him - hard liquor here is disgusting and horribly strong.

After this meeting, Aaron and I went to the Silk Market, hoping to find a jacket for me to wear to the wedding. We had heard that the Silk Market was two streets lined with shops selling fabric and tailor-made clothes. What we found was an exact replica of the Ya Show clothing market on San Litun Street. ("Pretty lady, you want a cashmere?") There were a few booths doing tailor work, but I refuse to pay someone to yell at me, make me feel cheap and make me a poor quality, over-priced garment. We hightailed it out of there, and asked some ladies selling scarves on the street where the real Silk Street markets were. They had all been moved into that building some years ago, apparently... They pointed us to another building down the street, which turned out to be a slightly smaller copy of where we had just been. Aaron spotted a little, deserted-looking shop nearby called "Linda's Tailoring and Alterations" or something, so we went in. Linda turned out to be a friendly and helpful Chinese lady who makes Western and Chinese suits, dresses and jackets. It was exactly the kind of shop I had imagined - quiet, no yelling, no pressure. I picked out a style of jacket that is mid-thigh length, has slightly wide sleeves, and a stand-up collar (not really Mandarin style), with the Chinese knot-style buttons in front. I chose a gorgeous brown silk fabric with blue phoenixes, trees and flowers on it. Aaron chose a navy pinstripe fabric and a Western-style suit.

Linda measured us and noted what we wanted. She asked me lots of questions, but I think she already knew the answers. Did I want slits down the sides of my jacket, or closed sides? I hesitated for a while, thinking. Then she said, "Probalbly slits would look better because of..." and then she patted my bum. Yes, Dad, a Chinese tailor told me I have a fat ass...

We go back this week to try our new clothes on. Pictures soon! I'm sure we paid more than we would have if we had bought something at the Silk Market (Aaron and I have a pact not to tell how much - someone always claims that whatever you spend, no matter how little, it was too much), but I'd pay more for quality, really great service and a good atmosphere.

Today, we went to the train ticket office to try to get some tickets down south, but were told that we needed to wait until 10 days before our departure date. Hopefully we can secure some tickets next weekend!

Posted by ucpegasus 06:19 Archived in China Comments (1)

Sports and Museums

In which I try my hand at two of China's most popular sports and Beijing tries its hand at a Museum of Natural History.

Aaron received badminton racquets from me for Christmas, and I received ping pong paddles from him, so I've recently been trying my hand at these sports. We have a ping pong table in our apartment building, which is quite convenient. I played with a colleague of mine a few times, for some coaching. Aaron and I have played once. I'm not as bad as I thought I'd be. I can get the ball to land on the table much of the time! It's really a fun game, and not a bad workout. On Friday, Aaron, Larry (a homeroom teacher for the 10th grade) and I went to Aaron's school to play badminton. I had not played since "Lifetime Sports" in high school! CUPL has an entire gymnasium for badminton and ping pong. There are eight badminton nets, and about 12 ping pong tables set up in a huge (very cold!) building. It's quite nice. I played until my forearm was burning. Larry beat Aaron best two out of three in two games, and I just hit back and forth with both of them. It's quite athletic - dashing all over the court to return the birdie to someone who has much more control over where he sends it than I do!

Yesterday, Aaron and I went to the Beijing Museum of Natural History. I was very excited, because I LOVE natural history museums, and I had heard it was good. After two busses and the subway, we zigzagged our way through a part of central Beijing that is very much under construction. Hutongs and old buildings are being demolished to make way for what looks like a pedestrian shopping area with street cars. The whole construction site is carefully hidden behind huge temporary walls, some of which are in the traditional hutong style, and some of which are covered with huge posters depicting "The Sims Visit Beijing's New Pedestrian Shopping District." I assume that, along with everything else, it will be done by August.

The museum is good - but not great. The exhibit signs are in Chinese, which was nice because it freed us up from having to read anything and we could enjoy just looking. The names of specimens are in Chinese and Latin, which was nice. There are very large halls of mounted dinosaurs skeletons and excellent maps depicting sites important to the paleontology of China. Though, there are many dinosaur scientific names that sound very Chinese (“Manchuriosaur chinghuaeii” for example – well, I made that one up, but they all sounded just like that). I’ve always loved the Linnaean system of naming, because it is international. It crosses all political and lingual barriers so all scientists identify one species by one name. It eliminates confusion and allows for communication between scientists. That’s what I thought anyway. And then I realized that it completely leaves out people who speak and write a language that uses a non-Roman alphabet (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Korean, etc.). That makes it a Western-centered system. I’m wondering how much disagreement there is between Latin names of organisms (especially dinosaurs found in China) inside China and in the west.

In addition to the dinosaurs, there is a “dinosaur park” of life-sized plastic dinosaurs. I think they are supposed to move, but were having a day off. I paid 4RMB to buy a fake coin to have it smashed and imprinted with my zodiac sign. I guess it’s illegal to smash real Renminbi! Not quite as cool as a smashed penny. The museum has a thing for some bizzare technology that involves a tank depicting, through plastic models, the terrain and vegetation of a certian area (the sea during the Cambrian, the plateau during the Jurassic, etc.) and superimposes digital animals into the scene. I have no idea how it works, but the animals come trudging, flying and swimming through, then mysteriously disappear in a pixelated cloud. It did not enhance my experience.

We also visited “The Plant Kingdom” which reads like my 100s-level biology course notes from college. It is a nice attempt at an exhibit on plant evolution and adaptations, but lacks any real, living plants. A man named Mr. Behring (immortalized as a wax statue of himself - more realistic than most of the animal mounts!) donated lots and lots of stuffed (mostly African) animal specimens to the museum which appear tightly clustered along wooden paths lined by big fake trees. Most of them are close enough to touch so most people do. I even saw one women climb over the low barrier between the path and the exhibit and stand next to a stuffed fox to have her picture taken!! Compare this with my experience at the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an.

I also enjoyed the exhibits on invertebrates (lots of preserved specimens in spirits), skeletons of animals, and the insect world. Many of the exhibits are in a state of disrepair and very dirty on the inside. It is definitely not on par with the American Museum or the Smithsonian, but was nice to visit anyway. It was much more a display of what I usually think of as a research collection than museum exhibits created to attract and educate the public. The exhibit on human evolution is tucked away in the basement, looks to have not been updated since the opening of the museum and seems to be out of date, especially considering how important China has been in discoveries related to human evolution, such as the Peking Man (which may have been on display there had it not been lost during WWII!).

One highlight was a children’s discovery area that features a sand pit with a buried dinosaur skeleton. Five little boys with shovels were going at it with glee while a tired looking museum employee swept sand back towards the sand box!

The most striking and unusual exhibit in my opinion, is the Hall of Human Bodies. Set in a little out-building is a collection of preserved human specimens that look like they may have been donated by a medical school that went out of business. There are three “plasticized” humans (like the “Body Worlds” exhibit”) dissected to show muscles and nerves, internal organs and the circulatory system. There are also three bodies suspended in spirits (standing!) dissected to show different organ systems. One has its face shrouded in white cloth – too scary to look at? Around the perimeter of the room are smaller preserved specimens – dissected arms and legs, heads of adults and children, torsos and pelvises, hearts, brains, other internal organs. and several fetuses (normal and abnormal) all dissected to show different body systems. It was so very different from any exhibit you might see in the United States – in fact, I’m not sure that it would be allowed in a public museum in the US. Besides a sign at the entrance stating “No photography” there are no warning signs, and parents and children walked around looking without any apparent fear or squeamishness. I think that there’s not the kind of aversion to death or taboo of talking about it or viewing something so graphic (or allowing one’s children to!) in this society. I hope the children didn’t have nightmares about it. The parents were treating the experience as something to be fascinated at, interested in, something to study, and I didn’t see any parents acting “grossed out.” I’m sure this helps a lot in raising children who feel the same! I even saw one little boy and one older lady touch the plasticized bodies!

After all this (despite all this) Aaron and I went shopping, and then out for duck (followed by fried and steamed mantou (little bread buns) dipped in sweetened condensed milk), and rode home on the subway and bus feeling very full and tired (and cold – I love Beijing public transportation – it is truly awesome - but would it kill them to heat the buses in January?!).

Today – rest, relaxation, and marking papers.

Posted by ucpegasus 17:17 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which I put on a smile...

-4 °C

I try my very best to smile and to be polite and to use my tiny little bit of Chinese. But so often (or maybe because these instances stick in my head), sales people and vendors are not polite. Is the cashier at Centurymart having a bad day when she throws my card onto the counter in front of me instead of passing it to me, or is that her usual manner? Is she in a bad mood, or does she dislike foreigners? Does she think I'm inconveniencing her because I can't carry on a conversation? I'm wondering (unfairly?) if black people in the United States have similar thoughts. "Is the clerk grumpy today, or racist?" How many similar interactions before a person concludes that everyone who frowns is irritated by the mere sight foreigners or is racist?

In a similar vein, am I automatically quoted a higher price in a market because I am a foreigner? I'm always laughed at when I ask for, or suggest a lower price. Sometimes, neighboring shopkeepers are called over to witness the "rude" waiguo ren (foreigner) trying to haggle. Is it rude? I'm made to feel foolish for trying. I suppose I could just set down the item and walk away, but how am I even to know a fair price? A colleague of mine noted that in upstate New York, more and more Canadians are coming across the border into the US to shop as the value of the US dollar falls. They aren't quoted marked up prices because they're not US citizens. But neither does the US have a tradition of flexible pricing. I'm just glad we have our vegetable lady who has fixed prices (although not "marked" exactly) and who, I am fairly sure, does not overcharge us.

I'm sure all this has far more to do with this being my "first time around" than it is commentary on the Chinese culture.

A man walks down the street
It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language (Paul Simon)

Aaron and I put in our applications for tickets to Olympics events. It is a lottery system, so we shall see what we get tickets to. We applied for men's volleyball, slalom kayaking, platform diving and swimming. Even if we don't get tickets, I'm sure it will be an exciting time to hang out in the city and to go out to watch events on a big screen in a bar (or at home). I hope you will all watch at home and welcome China as a global power. They're very excited to be here, and to be "citizens of the world with motherland heart," a phrase that is echoed all across Beijing. Besides the pollution, what news of China is arriving in the US? I wonder how different the view is from the West than it is from here?

Posted by ucpegasus 04:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

A gift in China...

In which a gift is not just a gift.

-2 °C

One of the wonderful things about this school is the laboratory staff. If I want to take my classes to lab (which I do about every other week), I just send in a form (translated into Chinese) that lists what experiment I am doing, what equipment I need, and how many lab groups to prepare for. Then, I just have to show up to guide my students through the lab. I don't have to wash any equipment, dilute or mix any chemicals or clean up after anyone else's mess. In fact, if I try to help, I'm told to stop, like I'm infringing on the jobs of the lab staff. There are two full-time chemistry lab instructors: a woman about my age, and a middle aged man. The woman speaks some English, but the man does not. We manage to communicate well enough. They are very, very helpful. The way it appears to me is that I come in twice a month not really knowing what I'm doing, with huge classes of somewhat rowdy students who are noisy, have the kind of chemistry technique you'd expect from sixteen-year-olds, break glassware, and then depart leaving the room in disarray, having collected mostly inaccurate results. The lab staff help the students during lab, make sure there is enough equipment in good, clean condition, deal with students who accidentally break things, and are very friendly! I am so grateful for the work they do: it saves me so much time, and significantly enhances "the chemistry experience" for my students.

My favorite way to show gratitude to a person is to bake them something. I made a loaf of banana bread (Grammy's recipe) last night, and wrapped up slices for each of them. Today (yes, Saturday...we have class to "make up" one "day off" for the New Year holiday) I brought the bread to them before lab, saying "Thank you for your help." (In English...this may be part of the problem.) They said, "Oh, no, no, no..." and refused to take the bread! This is part of the culture, to refuse a gift the first time (or two or three or four) it is offered. So I tried again. And again. And again. Finally, it was clear that they did not want the bread. I felt like crying. I took my bread, and left their office.

After class, I asked Lucy, who is a Chinese chemistry teacher and a mentor of mine. She said that they may have misunderstood why I was giving them a gift. She went down to the lab with me (which I was afraid would make things even more uncomfortable, but hey...I'm the weird foreigner: things can only get so bad). She explained in Chinese to the woman why I was giving a gift, and that it was just something I made myself. Apparently, the problem was that the lab teachers thought I was giving a New Years gift and they had nothing prepared to give in return!! I felt horrible because I'd never expect anything in return for any gift, no matter what holiday it was for, and I just really wanted to thank them for all their help this year!! The woman did accept the bread (so silly, all this over little slices of banana bread!!) for herself and the male teacher, and all seemed well.

I didn't want to create a sense of indebtedness between us; that's not at all why I would give a gift to a person! Living in China can be so complicated due to traditions and the customs of personal relationships. I never know what to say or do... It is especially difficult when I can not explain clearly my intentions! I'd like to say that the Chinese should just drop their manners and accept a gift (or an offer to pay the restaurant bill or an offer for help or even just a compliment), but I know that the customary behavior requires refusal and what seems to me to just be confusing rigmarole in order to accomplish something simple!!

Posted by ucpegasus 22:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

KTV and clubbing

In which I engage in "normal" weekend activities and then remember why I normally choose to retire at 9:30 pm with a book.

0 °C

I have lived.

Tonight, I danced (briefly, until my friends grew "bored" and were "not inspired by the music") on a bouncy dance floor.

After KTV tonight (where I was over-rided [over-rode?] repeatedly by "The Girls" who stole my songs and vetoed my song choice, and sang very, very loudly and off key), I was persuaded (foolishly, on my part) to accompany "The Girls" (I'm not one of "The Girls" by the way, and tonight reminded me of why I'm totally ok with that), out to a club. The club was called "Disco" (well, and something in Chinese, I'm sure), and played techno-y stuff (including techno mixes of Jingle Bells, oh yes).

So the bouncy dance floor. We're not talking rubber-pellet running track bouncy. This was really, really bouncy. Each square of the floor bounced independently, driven by the dancers. The harder and stronger the beat, the bigger the bounce. However, if there was a person larger than you with no rhythm on your square, your square bounced off beat. And you can't fight the beat. Also, for some reason, everyone was facing the DJ, like they were at a concert. A packed bouncy dance floor, everyone facing the same direction, bouncing...It was like the Chinese version of the middle school dance when the DJ played "Jump Around!" I could have danced for quite some time, perhaps even rescued my night, but alas, my interests failed, once again, to align with those of "The Girls." So we went home.

I shall check off "clubbing" from my list of things to do for 2007. Heck, I'm going to check it off for 2008, also. Would it be really lame to rent a KTV room for an hour or so for just myself? I'm adding that to my to do list.

Whoa, 2:18 am. I get crazy when Aaron's out of town! Good night.

Posted by ucpegasus 10:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

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