Today instead of class, we went to Gulangyu. It was a very fun morning, but now my brain is totally confused as to what day it is. A one-day weekend, Mass on Saturday, class on Sunday, and no class on Monday . . . goodness!
Our teacher suggested the fun day and a student suggested the location. I was hoping for a cool local view of Gulangyu, but Zhang laoshi had only been there once, I think – at least, she didn’t know that you only buy a ticket on the way back, and even I knew that . . . We walked around for awhile and then grabbed a large table by the beach for the main purpose of our field trip: learning to play Bo Bing.
Bo Bing is a very important Xiamen tradition related to 中秋节, or Mid-Autumn Festival. It started about 300 years ago when Koxinga (same person as the statue that “guards” Xiamen) and his soldiers were stationed in Xiamen before retaking Taiwan from the Dutch. Mid-Autumn Festival is an important time for family reunions, so the soldiers were very homesick. To distract them, Koxinga invented the game of Bo Bing, or Mooncake Gambling.
It’s a cool story, but the game isn’t quite as fun as I would expect from something that distracted soldiers from missing their families. It consists of throwing six dice into a bowl. That’s it. You don’t even get to reroll some of the dice, like you do in Yahtzee. Depending on what you roll, you get prizes. 4’s are the best, so even if you only roll one you get something. Four-of-a-kind and a straight are also prize-worthy. The biggest prizes are for all 4’s and four 4’s and two 1’s. (I do not know why this particular combination is so coveted, but I feel that if I did I would have a deep revelation on Chinese culture.)
The original prizes were mooncakes, which kind of seem like the Chinese equivalent of fruitcakes (very traditional but not very tasty). Nowadays, common household objects are often used (although apparently XiaDa is offering a car?!?!) Zhang laoshi brought 1-kuai pens, notebooks, candy, and shampoo, which seemed like a pretty typical spread from what I’ve seen.
We played until all the prizes were gone, which meant that we passed the bowl around for a ridiculous amount of time waiting for someone to roll 一二三四五六 (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) to win the mid-sized bottle of shampoo.
The site of a bunch of foreigners learning how to play the traditional game was very interesting to some of the local people, and at one point we had a small crowd watching.
I nearly won the shampoo (which would have been nice, as it was my brand and I am almost out) but I did walk away with a cheap pen and a small tube of candy. wOOt.
By then it was lunchtime, so we returned to Xiamen for lunch. We ate at a delicious Sichuan restaurant where the food was pleasantly spicy – not hot enough to hurt but enough to clean out my nasal passages. Because no Chinese meal would be complete without, there were a few mystery items. The last course was a soup that had “gan bei” and “ju sun”. Even after eating them, discussing them with Zhang laoshi, and looking them up online, I am not quite sure what I ate. Only in China . . . Gan bei is supposedly dried scallop, but are those sweet? David said Ju sun was some cucumber-like vegetable, the one they make loofahs from. Hmmm. I do not know about this, but I supposed my insides feel a little bit cleaner now.
At the beginning of that last paragraph, I was going to write that we returned to the mainland. I corrected myself, but I would like to mention the interesting challenge of geography and politics here in Xiamen. Mainland China is a geopolitical term that refers to the large land mass governed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with its capital in Beijing. The “mainland” includes Xiamen, which is an island, and excludes Hong Kong and Macau, which are not separated from the rest of China by any water . . .
So in Xiamen, we’re in Mainland China but we’re not on the mainland of China. Also, compared to Gulangyu, Xiamen feels like the mainland, so sometimes I refer to it as that.
Mainland China also excludes Taiwan, which is both an island and a different country. It is the Republic of China, or ROC, although China still claims it and some countries don’t acknowledge it as a separate entity. While telling a Chinese friend about my trip to Taiwan, I finished it by saying that I would return to China, and he corrected me by saying “Mainland China”, because they believe that Taiwan is part of China.
As if this weren’t enough, there’s more. There are a lot of parts of China that are what I call “kind of China”. Hong Kong and Macau, for instance, are Special Administrative Regions (SAR)– while they’re part of the PRC, they have different political and economic systems. They’re so different that if you’re in China and go to Hong Kong, you need a multiple-entry visa to get back into the Mainland, just as if you had gone to a totally different country.
There are also Autonomous Regions, like the recently-publicized Xinjiang Province. There are five, each an area with a high minority population: Xianjiang’s Uighurs, Tibet’s Tibetans, Guangxi’s Zhuangs, Inner Mongolia’s Mongols, and Ningxia’s Huis. They have their own local governments like the other provinces do, but they theoretically have more legislative power. On the scale of China to not-China, these are pretty China; they’re just the parts of China that are most often closed to foreigners . . .
There are also Subautonomous Regions, which I only mention because Yanji is the capital of one. These are like the above mentioned, only less important. Yanji is the capital of the Yanbian Subautonomous Region, which has a high proportion of Koreans.
Lastly, there are 5 Special Economic Zones (SEZ): Shantou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Hainan, and my island, Xiamen! They are all coastal locations that have been opened up to foreign investment to a much greater degree than the rest of China. Basically, things are possible in these cities that are not possible in the rest of China.
I hope that was both interesting and educational. Perhaps slightly bewildering also, as that is how I often feel about it all. Although, to be fair, I think the US also has regions that are “kind of America” in the same ways – Native American reservations, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, etc. I sure as heck don’t understand those things, so maybe it’s not so surprising that I find China’s geopolitical situation a trifle confusing.
To finish this post up, I have two interesting encounters with local people to relate:
ONE: Yesterday as I was wandering around trying to find the place to buy my tickets, I asked an old woman for directions. She waved her hand in front of her face in the universal negative sign and said “我听不懂普通话”- “I don’t understand Mandarin”. That was my first time trying to talk to someone that only spoke the local dialect and not the national language! I felt a little bit happy, actually, as I walked away, because for once the lack of communication was not due to my inadequate Mandarin.
TWO: On the way back to campus after lunch today, I stopped in a street market to buy more of my 2-kuai bracelets. As I was paying, I realized that the two women behind the table were discussing whether or not I was a 外国人 (foreigner). I usually make people guess where I’m from, just for funsies, and they guessed that I was from Xinjiang! Carlos, my Spanish friend, has also been told this, so there must be something about Hispanics that make us resemble the Turkic Muslims of China. Who knew??