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Diary
By weihan (Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 05:40:09 PM EST) China, travel, third world, Chinese hospitality, language barrier (all tags)
July is my last month in China...

So I decided to spend it in a place that was a bit more representative of the rest of the country than Beijing. I went back to PingQuan. This was the farming town where Very went during Chinese New Year.

This is the diary of my three weeks there. Three weeks of Chinese hospitality, linguistic isolation, and beautifully cool weather.



Day 1

Me and CGH set off from Beijing about 8:30 on the 4th of July. This of course was after more than enough deliberation with the drivers going to ChengDe or PingQuan. The ride was mostly uneventful. The other occupants of the car were understandably curious about me. When the driver found out I was American he had something to say about that (which I didn't understand). The conversation shifted towards politics for a while and I mostly zoned out.

We got to ChengDe around noon and set off for PingQuan soon after. I fell asleep on this ride so it was over quite fast. When we got to PingQuan we went straight to the teaching center to drop off our bags. Then we went for some quick lunch. After that we went to the police station to register my presence in the town.

During dinner CGH told me that there had been an earthquake in Beijing. I excused myself to call friends back in BJ. Jester had slept through it. Very noticed it but didn't think much of it until I called her. I was happy to hear that it was uneventful, though in hindsight I wished I had been there for the experience since I've never been in an earthquake. (perhaps that's a bit naive. I used to feel the same about sandstorms)

After dinner we went back to the study center and then on to the house where I would be staying. I went inside and sat down with the man of the house for about half an hour. I spoke to him in my broken ass Chinese and he spoke to me in an accent I couldn't understand. The world cup was on TV and I struggled to find out who was playing. The Chinese name GeSiDaLiJia was particularly perplexing. I thought it was Portugal. They thought it was some African country. Turns out it's Costa Rica. Meh. Tiring of the communication barrier, I retired to my room and called Very.

Day 3

It rains here every day. I imagine this is because it's the rainy season right now. It kind of reminds me of Ohio. Farms and corn and rain.

The communication barrier still seems insurmountable. Yesterday during lunch I gave up on speaking and listening. It was too frustrating. Some of my Chinese hosts, bless their hearts, seem to think that mixing in English names for things will make me feel a little less isolated. Except that their English skills aren't that great and I can say in Chinese what they are attempting to say in English. It comes across as annoying.

Of course it is slowly getting better. I woke up this morning and understood most of what was being said to me at breakfast.

Day 7

I've been here a week now. Of course I don't understand everyone perfectly, but I'm starting to communicate more easily. I've mostly adjusted to the accent and have picked up all the different words that they use for the things I know how to say already. CGH is teaching me phrases and I'm helping him correct his English. If I talk to the children in our study center, I usually pick up a new word or phrase.

We started classes yesterday. We have three classes a day. One at 9am, 1:30pm, and 4:30 pm. CGH teaches for one hour and I teach for one hour although it often doesn't work out this way. Often I only teach for half an hour or 45 minutes.

When I'm not teaching or learning Chinese I'm writing software. Right now I'm working on a simple particle system. It's a nice break from everything else. Now that it works, I'm gonna generalize it so that I can use it for whatever nefarious purposes in the future.

Every time somebody invites CGH or I out to lunch or dinner, they always want me to drink beer or wine with them. I'm not opposed to having a beer with them if its dinner but they always push me to drink until I'm drunk. I think maybe they wonder how much of a "man" I am. Anyhow, it's not that big a deal since I can usually refuse to comply.

On a lesser note, I took my first shower in almost a week the other day. It was awesome. I haven't felt that dirty since Philmont.

Day 14

Very came to visit over the weekend. On Friday morning, she took the train to ChengDe where we met. After finding a hotel that suited us, we went to eat some lunch and then got down to touristing.

ChengDe is an interesting City. It is the site of a gigantic imperial summer retreat named BiShuShanZhuang. This is where emperors would come to escape the awful summer heat of Beijing. It's name roughly translates as "avoid summer mountain resort". The resort is as large as the ChengDe metro area and has eight temples surrounding it. Very and I went to one of these temples first.

Actually, we went to two temples. The taxi driver dropped us off at our destination. What we didn't realize was that we were actually at a similarly named temple that was right next to the one we wanted to go to. This first temple was quite boring. It just had a bunch of statues of arhats. After we discovered this, we quickened our pace and headed for the exit. Next door at our actual destination was yet another temple. except this one had a 25 meter tall statue "with numerous hands and eyes". It had about 30 arms and each hand had an eye in it. After we got a good look at the statue and took pictures of the surrounding buildings, we left.

Our next stop was to be BiShuShanZhuang but it was already late in the afternoon and our taxi driver convinced us to go to another place. Another place that was far away. So she made a bit of money off us but that was okay. She took us to a place called ShuangTaShan. Essentially it was a mountain with two rock pillars on top. On top of the pillars were two tiny buildings. There was no way to get on top of the pillars. Very and I were hot and tired, so we bought chairlift tickets for our first time ever in China. It was definitely nicer than hiking up the mountain in the heat. We walked around on top of the mountain and took pictures before heading back down the chairlift. We were met by our driver at the gate (we told her to wait) and taken back to our hotel. After resting for a couple hours we went out and ate dinner before calling it a night.

On Saturday morning we woke up at the butt-crack of dawn and went to BiShuShanZhuang. This turned out to be a brilliant plan since it was much cooler before noon than after (so much for avoiding summer). We walked around the park for about three hours. We saw a good number of things we wanted to see but were generally confused by how large and labyrinthine the place was. At 11am sharp we took a short taxi ride back to our hotel and checked out.

After checking out of the hotel we headed to the train station to find a car to PingQuan. We arrived during some kind of lull and there were no drivers going to PingQuan. Luckily my driver from the day before had given me his business card, so we gave him a call. A short time later we were connected with a lady who was going to PingQuan. She picked us up and then picked up two other people before setting off.

PingQuan was nice and fairly uneventful. We didn't really do much beside rest on Saturday. On Sunday, I had to teach, so Very helped out. Actually she kinda took over. Since her Chinese is much better than mine, she had much less difficulty communicating with the students. I could already anticipate the queries I would get from students about where Very went after she returned to Beijing.

Very's train back to Beijing left PingQuan at 4am on Monday. I stayed with her at the study center until 3:30 at which time we woke up from our short slumber and biked to the train station. After seeing her off, I went back to the home of the family I'm staying with and rang the doorbell... At 4:20am. The man of the house, ever gracious, let me in before returning to bed himself. You really can't beat Chinese hospitality (although not dead-bolting the door would be a nice touch. Communication barrier rears its ugly head again).

I suppose I should comment on communication issues... I'm about as comfortable with the local accent now as I am with the Beijing accent. I'll never understand everything that is said to me, but I'm managing to communicate most of the time. On Sunday night, Very and I went out to dinner with Mel (whom we met during Chinese New Year) and spoke nothing but Chinese. Of course, Very did most of the talking, but I didn't feel totally left out and was able to add a comment here and there or answer questions. If I could be forced to speak that much for my last week here, my Chinese would improve markedly.

Day 20

Very came up for the weekend again. This time we spent the whole time in PingQuan. She took the butt-ass early train from Beijing and got to ChengDe at 4:45am or so. There she was met by a car that CGH arranged ahead of time. I woke up at 4:30 or so then half slept until 5:30 before going to meet her. Needless to say, we were both dragging a bit for the rest of the day.

First thing in the morning on Saturday (well, after an hour nap or so), we joined CGH and about 50 students on a trip to GuangTuShan. GuangTuShan is a mountain that is the source of the Liao River. The Liao River runs into the adjacent LiaoNing Province.

CGH must have underestimated the turnout, because we waited for about an hour before there was enough buses to accommodate all the students. After setting off, we drove north for about an hour and a half before hitting the most god-awful dirt road that you would ever dream of driving a 30 passenger bus on. We drove for another hour or so on this road before coming to a farm house and trail head. It was lunchtime, so we all ate a quick lunch in the grass.

After eating we set out for a three hour hike. Very and I didn't know it was going to be three hours, but I think we both did really well despite the circumstances. We hiked to the top of the mountain. The scenery was by far the most beautiful I have seen in China. Living in Beijing tends to engender a negative view of China. If I never left Beijing, I'd thing the whole country was one giant polluted cesspool. As it happens, this only applies to the cities. The countryside is stunning in the summertime. At least the countryside in the northeast. I can't say anything for the rest of the country. In stark contrast with the winter, it's quite rainy and lush during the summer here. The hills are transformed from a dry wasteland into lush greenery.

By the time we made it to the peak, Very and I were both exhausted. We thought we were at the halfway point. When CGH said we were going to hike to the next peak over, we were less than enthusiastic. However, when we got there, we saw a nicely paved road and our two buses waiting below. Instead of the halfway point, we were at the end. You better believe we were relieved. We took several pictures of the view before hiking down to the road. After another few hours on the bus, we were back in PingQuan. Our trip had consumed the entire day.

We went to the home where I am living and ate dinner. After dinner, Very went to stay at the study center and I went to bed. I slept for 12 hours... Sunday was spent being lazy. We went to have lunch at a students house and then bought some Chinese versions of Garfield books to read. We hung out at the study center for a little while before going to eat dinner at CGH's parents house. After dinner it was back to the study center to sleep for a few hours before sending Very off at the train station at 4am.

Day 21

My communication situation hasn't significantly improved as far as I can tell. The victories seem to be eclipsed by the defeats. Still though, I can communicate much better than when I arrived. Whenever I really need to get a point across, I usually succeed. Also, I'm to the point where I can learn new words and such from people who don't speak English. This is essentially the goal I wanted to achieve before leaving China. This is especially fortunate as I'm leaving in one week.

One of the things that I was supposed to do about 9 months ago was get a blood test. I still haven't gotten a blood test because I thought I would need to learn the names of the liver enzymes that had high levels on my last test. Well, I finally learned the names today. AST is 谷草转氨酶 and ALT is 谷丙转氨酶. Easy, right ? Hah... I lucked out. The mother of the family that I'm staying with is a nurse. That, and she left a sheet of paper with blood test results sitting out. So, 9 months after the fact, I learned the terms that I didn't really need to know. I could have just gone and showed my prior blood test results to the doctors and gotten checked out. Whatever. I'm going to get retested soon after I get back to the states.

So, er. I've gone on a bit about how great Chinese hospitality is when people know you. However, there is a sinister dark side to balance the light. If you go to eat with Chinese people they will try to give you alcohol poisoning and/or overfeed you. Tonight was a good example. CGH and I were treated to dinner by some parents of a student. We were met at the restaurant by the parents and their extended family. Soon after arriving, we were urged to down glass after glass of beer. Ganbei this, Ganbei that (gan bei means "dry glass", ie- drink it all, bitch). All this beer was going to our empty stomachs. If not for CGH's artful dodging, we would have been drinking BaiJiu ("white wine", the worst translation of "carburetor cleaner" I've ever seen). Anyhow, CGH and I are both light drinkers, so we were overwhelmed pretty quickly. Our hosts were the same way with the food... I'm not sure, but I'd say Chinese doesn't have a saying equivalent to "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". I'll have to ask CGH before I go back to Beijing.

Day 22

Chinese people are imbeciles. It's a wonder I've learned any Chinese. For an example of some of my learning material here's a conversation I had tonight:

Him: You're from Texas?
Me: Yeah
Him: So is Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor of California?
Me: What?
CGH (in English): He asked you if it was true that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California.
Me (to myself): (WTF ??)

It's not always this bad of course, but I'm impressed by how utterly confusing non-sequiters are if you don't have a good command of a language.

On a totally unrelated note, hemp grows everywhere out here. Well, all along the sides of farmers' fields at least. I'm guessing they used to grow it in those fields and it's just a weed now.

Day 23

After a lazy morning of waiting and a final lunch with my host family, I took a car to ChengDe with CGH. It was pouring down rain when we got there. The train that I was supposed to take back to Beijing was so full that they weren't even selling standing tickets. So I took a bus back. The bus ride was essentially uneventful. The Chinese passengers were, as usual, surprised that a foreigner was on the bus but this is so normal for me now that it's not even worth mentioning.

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hahah by sasquatchan (2.00 / 0) #1 Fri Jul 28, 2006 at 04:34:49 AM EST
BaiJiu ("white wine", the worst translation of "carburetor cleaner" I've ever seen)
Awesome!

So are you back to the states soon ? Already ? Going to slozo's wedding ? Going to see Lyle Saxon on your way out ?

And you didn't pick the hemp to make your own clothes, while pressing the hemp seeds to make deisel oil, etc ? You're no hippy, son! ;)

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