Maria Holland

Posts Tagged ‘Fujian’

BTW, We’re Going Mountain Climbing

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2010 at 12:48 am

These last few weeks have been really busy with church.  I know most of what’s going on, but when I don’t it just boils down to this: if someone asks me if I’m going to be at XXXX on the XXth at XX o’clock, I say yes.  Then I just pick up the rest of the details as we go.  It’s usually pretty easy, almost always consisting of Mass at various places throughout our diocese, more often than not preceded by snacks or followed by meals. 

So when I showed up at the ferry in a skirt and dress flats, and saw everyone else wearing athletic pants and sneakers, I didn’t think much of it.  I mean, I noticed, but I certainly didn’t think “Huh, I bet we’re going to climb a mountain after Mass.”  Because that would be ridiculous, right?

[Side note: I was also wearing my new glasses, which I bought for $110 – without insurance!]

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Today’s Mass was in honor of the Virgin of Fatima, who first appeared to three children in Portugal in May of 1917, so we took a bus out to Changtai, site of a church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima.  Much to my dismay, they did the readings in Minnanhua instead of Mandarin, so I have no idea what was said.  Thus, I was especially grateful for the music today, which had especially meaningful lyrics (that I understood!). 

Random anecdote from Mass: When they brought the gifts forward (usually just bread, wine, and water to be consecrated), they also brought a few baskets of fruit as an offering.  We do this in America sometimes, too – but these baskets contained pineapple, wax apples, lychee, and dragonfruit.  It was just so quintessentially Xiamen! 

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After Mass, then I set about trying to get to Zhangzhou.  Some of my friends were participating in a dance competition at our Zhangzhou campus, and I had talked to someone already about getting there straight from Changtai.  I’m basically a master of all forms of transportation in China, so I didn’t think it would be a problem.

Sister Mangu found someone driving to Zhangzhou and they said I could go with them, but then everything fell apart when I mentioned that I was going to XiaDa’s campus in Zhangzhou.  All of a sudden everything was 没办法 and 算了吧 and 不可能的 (in a nutshell, “no way, Jose”) because – get this – the Zhangzhou campus isn’t in Zhangzhou.  Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that! 

Everyone counseled me to just go tomorrow, which was a nonsensical argument as the competition was a one-day only thing, but I basically had no option.  So I joined the rest of the youth from my parish over bowls of noodles and fixin’s.  It was around this time that I began to hear the words 爬山, which mean “mountain climbing”, and about this time that I began cursing the language barrier between me and everyone who had told me about today’s event. 

I mean, I suppose there might be outfits that lie at the intersection of the sets “Clothes that are appropriate for Mass” and “Clothes that are appropriate for climbing mountains”, but when I have no particular reason to be mountain-climbing-ready, I tend not to be.  Case in point today, when my outfit consisted of a pair of peep-toes, a skirt, and thick leggings (which turned out to not be necessary on this 90-degree day).  After nearly a year of making fun of the tendency of Chinese women to climb mountains in ridiculous outfits (the woman at Wuyishan in high heels and a fur coat is particularly memorable), I can’t say how horrified/amused I was to see that everyone except for one person was dressed more sensibly than me.  

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Every time I cooed worriedly over a small scratch on my shoes (precious beyond words because I bought them in Hong Kong and they actually fit), someone would make a comment about how I had worn the wrong shoes.  I kept my mouth shut, but apparently I climb better when I’m angry because, despite my attire, I kept up with the group just fine.  I know my Chinese isn’t perfect (and was even more vehement than usual in protesting such compliments today), but I SWEAR that the words 爬山 were never once mentioned in any of the several conversations I had about today’s trip.  It seems like kind of an important thing to mention, though, right?  By the way, we’re going mountain climbing! 

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The mountain was nice, and we took a lot of pictures.

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Once I had walked off my frustration, I really enjoyed the time.  I finally talked to a couple of people that I see at church every week, learning their names and a little bit about them.  After recently despairing about BinBin, the one person at church who doesn’t seem at all interested in being my friend, I think that maybe I wrote him off too early.  We totally bonded over music today, singing the 天主经 (Our Father) in a round as we came down the mountain. 

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We ran into some strangers at the top and I got to hear Fr. Zhao explain Catholicism and Christianity in Chinese, which I guess I’ve been doing alright. 

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When we had conquered the mountain, we took the bus to a restaurant where the parents of one of my new-old friends treated us to lunch.  It was a delicious lunch with about 13 dishes, that apparently all consisted at least half of ginger.  Amazing.

I really felt Chinese during lunch.  I dug around the fish skeleton for the good flesh, expertly avoided most of the bones, and expertly removed the remaining bones from my mouth without too much grimacing.  I put said bones on the table without any hesitation, confident that the table-top was where my refuse belonged.  I downed at least a bottle of 雪花 beer, tiny glass by tiny glass and 敬 by 敬, as people went around to other tables to toast.  I even pointed to my nose (instead of my chest) when talking about myself.

Maybe I’m at a tipping point in my cultural immersion here in China.  A week ago, I didn’t know what the term 中国通 (old China hand) meant, but since then I’ve had four separate people call me one.  I eat rice porridge, I book tickets on qunar.com, I can converse freely with Chinese, and I sing in a Chinese choir.

And I point to my nose when I talk about myself.  I’m basically Chinese.

玩得很累 (Tired from Having Fun)

In Uncategorized on May 4, 2010 at 1:51 am

Three-day weekends in China are not for sleeping in apparently.  (They’re not even definitely for fun; XuLei had class all day yesterday!)  I met up with her and three of her friends at 8; we grabbed breakfast and then took a succession of three buses to get out to HongYang’s home.  He lives in Chuangdong, a small (population 2,000) farming village in the ‘suburbs’ of Xiamen.  Interesting Chuangdong fact: everyone there has the last name Hong.  Interesting Chinese fact: There is a verb for “to have the last name of” or “to be surnamed”, and when I write things like the previous sentence in English, I find the lack of a similar verb extremely awkward. 

The village is nice, and probably more like your image of China than any other place I’ve been in this country.  There are narrow, mostly-dirt roads, chickens and geese wandering around, carrots out to dry on the paths, women gathered to clean and sort green onions, water buffalo being led around, etc. 

In true Minnan hospitality, our first task upon arriving was to drink tea.  The other three girls are from different parts of China – Hubei, Jilin, and Gansu – and none of them had ever seen a traditional Fujian tea set or drank tea served that way!  I find this hard to believe because I find myself being served tea this way approximately every 14 minutes – even though I hate tea.  XuLei attempted to serve the tea but kept getting corrected – so then I tried it and, based on my vast experience watching hosts serve the tea, basically did it perfectly. 

I was pleased with myself for doing it better than her (an actual Chinese!) but she got back at me throughout the day by twice using me as an example of a fat person.  “My dad had to carry my uncle – who is even fatter than Maria!”  “Xiao Han, look at Maria!  She’s fat too, but she doesn’t care about dieting!” 

After tea, the food began to arrive.  HongYang’s mother made 8 dishes, a ridiculous amount for the 5 of us, so we settled in for a marathon of eating.  There was a mysterious fish with pointy things coming out of its side (good with ginger), boiled shrimp (a classic), squid (best I’ve ever eaten), fried chicken legs (like KFC but so much better!), and ribs with cucumbers and tomato sauce (delicious).  The mysterious sweet-potato-noodle/oyster dish was only mediocre and I didn’t try the radish-and-pig-organ soup, but the rest was absolutely amazing. 

Lunchtime was quite interesting.  A wedding procession passed by outside at one point, proceeded by the insane sound of firecrackers.  Apparently traditional Minnan weddings involve the groom carrying the bride (her face covered in a red cloth) down the street from her home to the ceremony.  Poor guy was tired, but he made it!

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This inspired HongYang to find the DVD of another neighbor’s recent wedding, which we watched in entirety – from the making of pink and white tangyuan to the carrying of the bride to the ceremonial feeding-fried-chicken-to-the-bride to the part where friends painted a fu manchu on the groom’s face to the bobbing for money activity to the painfully awkward kissing on the bed while friends looked on.  What a riot.  One item on my Bucket List for this year is “go to a Chinese wedding” but I’m starting to wonder if I can give myself credit for the two wedding DVDs I’ve sat through?

Also, a neighbor woman brought over her one-year-old son.  We girls had fun fussing over him, and he had fun peeing on the floor.  I was actually surprisingly okay with that, but felt physically unwell when they didn’t clean it up afterwards and I saw him walk through the puddle.  Nonetheless, I accepted the opportunity to hold him and get a picture taken with a baby wearing split-bottom-pants. 

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Once we were stuffed, we went on a tour of the village.  Some of the most interesting things was the temples.  At first glance, they reminded me of South America’s churches because, even in a small village without much money, they were elaborately decorated. 

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But then a second glance revealed the old men lounging around watching the TV set prominently on the altar, and the banners on the wall listing names and amounts of money (possibly donations?), and I remembered that I was in China.

At the end of our walk, we ran into an uncle of HongYang, who offered to take us to see the new underwater tunnel that just opened up.  We girls squeezed into the back of his car and went to check it out.

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It’s a tunnel under the sea – not much to see, obviously.  It has cut down travel time from Xiamen to Xiangan significantly, though, meaning that after about 15 minutes we were on the other side of the tunnel and almost home.  But . . . we had left our bags at home before starting the tour, so we returned to get them and then began the two-hour journey home via public transit. 

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While waiting for one of our buses, I French-braided XuLei’s hair, which immediately piqued the interest of the others – none of whom know how to braid at all!  Doing hair is like the international language of girls (one I speak fluently), so after I did Xiao Han’s hair on the BRT, we’re basically besties. 

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I got home at nearly 8, absolutely exhausted from my extended weekend of fun.  I watched Back to the Future while eating mangos and painting two sets of Catan pieces with nail polish, which was most definitely a good use of my time.  I also did real stuff, like laundry and getting new sheets, so whatever. 

Class starts tomorrow, which means I can finally sleep in.  That sounds funny!

Chongwu: Home Of The Good Wall

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2010 at 1:03 am

After 8 months of mentioning our desire to take a day trip, Aleid and I took a day trip today!  Aleid made all the plans, so I just hopped in a taxi with my wallet and a camera and we headed to the bus station.  We took a bus from Xiamen to Quanzhou, about an hour away.  Quanzhou appears to be a cookie-cutter Chinese mid-sized city (of course, by ‘mid-sized, I mean the population is around 800,000). 

[Side note on Chinese cities: When my dad came to China, he was reading a book that contained a quote something along the lines of “There are 40 cities in China with over a million people, and you’ve never heard of 37 of them.”  So I started wondering, how many Chinese cities does the average American know?  And how many do I know?  So, average Americans (although of course you’re not average, because you’re reading my blog about my life in a Chinese city): what’s the number?  First, write down a list of every Chinese city you can think of, without any references!  Names remembered from my blog are fair game.  Then, check out this list of the top 100+ Chinese cities by population.  How many have you even heard of before?  For me, the number was 35.]

Quanzhou, as a cookie-cutter city, was much less crowded than Xiamen was yesterday.  Despite this, it is much louder than Xiamen ever is.  Cars, buses, and motorcycles honk incessantly, as if the action itself made the vehicle move.  Touts of all varieties surround the bus station and went crazy as we walked by them.  We had to brave them because our connecting bus was leaving from a different bus station.  This always happens; I swear if a city only had one bus station they would build another upon our arrival just to mess with us.

When a woman helped us cut in line to buy our tickets to Chongwu, we thought we were on the fast track to the beach! . . . but then we realized we had to wait in line.  Although we managed to keep people from cutting (Aleid freaked the hell out of one lady when she turned to her and said, in Mandarin, “You cut in line!”, causing the woman to sheepishly return to her former spot), it still took over an hour to get on a bus.  We took advantage of the wait to make two separate trips to the KFC next door – one for sugar-coated 油条 (oil sticks) that were easily the closest thing to a churro that I’ve had since Uruguay, and one for french fries and a Peking-Duck-style chicken wrap.  No wonder KFC does so well in China; their menu is barely recognizable!

Chongwu is a nice small city.  The distinction between mid-sized cities and small cities is largely evident in fast food franchises.  Mid-sized cities have Maidanglao (McDonalds) and KFC; small cities have Maikecai (a.k.a. “Fake McDonalds”) and CBC (a.k.a. “Fake KFC).

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It was relatively quiet, not too crowded, and the day was 75 and sunny, so we really felt lucky to be there.  The main attractions in Chongwu are the beach and the old city wall, so we walked across town to the park.  The city wall is quite nice but obviously has nothing on the Great Wall – hence, we dubbed it the “Good Wall”. 

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We quickly got distracted by the gorgeous beach.  Some areas, with white waves crashing on black rocks, reminded me of Lake Superior.

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Other places, with white rocks and blue-green sea, made me think of pictures of Greece. 

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We lounged on the rocks for a few hours, enjoying the solar energy from the sun on our backs and the stored thermal energy of the rocks beneath us.  There was a breeze to keep us cool, kites in the sky to watch, and Chinese tourists to take pictures with. 

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Then we walked around a bit until we stumbled upon a forest of hammocks! 

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We gleefully jumped into them and basked for 5 minutes before being told that we owed 1 kuai.  Personally, I think that was one of the best 1 kuai I’ve ever spent in China. 

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Of all the things that people try to sell tourists, 5 minutes on a hammock is the most brilliant idea.  They had a great location, too – right off the beach, but under the shade of a small grove of trees. 

Then it was time to head back home, a journey that went worse than the way out.  We got on a bus to Quanzhou almost immediately, but they let a ton of people on to stand, which made the ride uncomfortable for everyone.  Then our bus from Quanzhou was delayed a half hour before boarding, a half hour after boarding, and a half hour en route.  Basically, this trip served as Aleid’s introduction towards “adventuring”. 

We made it to Chongwu, had a good day, and eventually made it home, so . . . Adventure successful! 

Been There, Done That

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2010 at 11:46 pm

We started our second day in ZhaoAn with Chinese breakfast.  Chinese breakfast is kind of interesting, because it’s pretty much just like Chinese lunch and Chinese dinner – there’s vegetables, meat, seafood, and rice.  (Okay, to be fair, the rice at breakfast is watery.  Everything else is the same.)  I usually consider myself ready for new food only after noon, but Aleid and I were proud of ourselves for eating it.

After breakfast we continued making the rounds of friends (thankfully with less tea today).  One of our stops was at a real estate company where our friends are looking into buying a new storefront; we may have been brought along as bargaining tools. 

It was a beautiful day to walk around, almost 20 degrees C.  ZhaoAn is one of those Chinese towns that are all the same.  There are workers welding on the side of the road without cover, which is so common it’s cliche.  It’s easy to tell they don’t get many foreigners there, which can almost be measured by the number of near-accidents per minute.  I’m used to people rubber-necking a full 180 degrees when they see me, but today was the first time I saw a guy get into trouble with his girlfriend for staring.  That was kind of nice; I certainly don’t get second (or third) glances in America.

We took a bus back at 1, arriving back in Xiamen just in time to miss our afternoon class.  The trip, unexpected extension and all, was totally worth it though.  ZhaoAn ended up being much further than we had expected, which means Aleid and I have covered the length and breadth of our province.

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From Yongding’s tulou in the west to Ningde in the east, and from ZhaoAn in the south to Wuyishan in the north, we’ve been there, done that, had that adventure, and ate that . . . whatever it was.

Visiting Friends in ZhaoAn

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Well, that was an adventure.

You may (or may not) remember that on our last day in Wuyishan, Aleid and I made friends with a couple on their honeymoon.  When we parted ways, they told us to come visit them when we had a chance.  Despite the fact that we spent an entire lesson studying a text detailing the awkwardness that can result from assuming Chinese people mean it when they say this sort of thing, we decided to assume they meant it.  I texted Lin (the woman) on Thursday asking if we could come over this weekend, and she yes, so take that and stuff it, Beijing University Press! 

They live in Zhao’An in Zhangzhou city, and she assured us it was very close.  So Sunday morning Aleid and I met at 9, went to the bus station, and got a perfectly-timed bus heading that way.  We didn’t think to inquire about the length of the trip until we were seated on the bus, which was when we discovered it was over 3 hours away.  Um . . . ‘kay.  Aleid and I exchanged a glance and she said, “Let’s just see what happens!”  And so it began.

We slept on the way, but every time I woke up I got to appreciate a tiny bit of Fujian’s mountainous, green beauty.  When we arrived, our friends picked us up on their motorbikes – sweet.  (Actually, first we had to find the bus station, which was less than a block away but quite unassuming.  We asked the swarms of taxi and pedicab drivers where it was, and one twerp actually offered to take us there.  After I snorted and rolled my eyes, he pointed to the building directly behind us.  Aleid told me that this sort of thing happened to her less-China-saavy roommates in Guangzhou; they ended up getting driven around the block three times before being dropped off exactly where they started.) 

The majority of the afternoon consisted of three things: 1) being fed ridiculous amounts of food, most of them 诏安特产 (ZhaoAn specialties), 2) drinking miniscule cup after miniscule cup of bitter tea, and 3) being introduced to every friend of our friends. 

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We went to the cell phone shop that she opened, where we had lunch.  We went to their house, where I got to look at their wedding photos.  This is always a pleasure of mine, but especially so in China where wedding photos take up an entire day and include several costume and location changes.

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We went to her cousin’s business, her friend’s house, her other friend’s clothing store, her other friend’s cell phone shop, and were introduced to other friends on the street.  We were also sometimes driven around by her friend who mysteriously had a really nice car.  (Can you say Mob Boss?  Most definitely.  That, or a DVD shop.)  We drank tea at every stop, much to my chagrin :(  (Somewhere around the 27th cup, I fantasized about telling them I don’t drink tea.  But then I figured they wouldn’t believe me, and continued to choke it down.)

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One of the friends gave us some peanuts from his hometown as a gift.  Then Lin remembered my singing of the national anthem back in Wuyishan, and told me to sing it again.  When I protested, she told me that he had given me peanuts and it would be polite to sing for him.  I took the opportunity to tell them about a phrase we have in English, the one about “working for peanuts”. 

We had dinner in a nice restaurant, where they took our rule of thumb (one dish per person), doubled it, and ordered a second soup.  While I really regretted their inexplicable fondness for 苦瓜, the bitter gourd, the meal was pretty good.  There was this fried sweet rice thing, some delicious pork dumplings, savory greens, the best Japanese tofu I’ve had yet with some tasty (already half-peeled) shrimp, the mandatory eggplant dish, and some sort of fried fish stick. 

The only problem with being treated to dinner by Chinese is their darned hospitality.  They’re such conscientious hosts that their concern sometimes borders on smothering.  At the very least, it’s slightly pushy; at worst it’s aggressive.  They like to add food to your plate – usually what they consider the best, which I usually consider the weirdest.  They refill bowls without asking, over your protests.  Your claims to be full will be studiously ignored and refuted until you’ve finished everything on the table, including the dishes they ordered after you began claiming to be full.  With that said, I know they do it because they care and I treasure these dinners – weird dishes, painfully-full stomachs, and all.

After dinner we went to sing karaoke.  We went to her cousin’s business, which had a combination conference-room-slash-karaoke-parlor (of course).  Aleid and I started off with some English songs, performing some awesome versions of “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”, “Last Christmas”, and “Umbrella”.  Then they sang some and we pulled out our (very small) repertoire of Chinese songs.  I think we did pretty well for ourselves, singing 童话, 爱我别走, 故事里的事, and 普通朋友.  It was my first time doing karaoke with Chinese, and it was a ball.  We sang until midnight – ending with the national anthems again, of course.

Our original plan had been to stay for the afternoon, but our friends weren’t really happy with that.  They greeted us by asking how many days we were staying, and wouldn’t accept “one” as an answer.  There was a cool festival coming up – on the SEVENTH! – that they wanted us to stay for, but I think in their hearts even they knew that was ridiculous.  We managed to bargain down to one night (pleading class as an excuse).  It’s not that I didn’t want to stay; we did have class and we didn’t have any overnight necessities with us.  Thus, we slept in our clothes and Aleid and I shared the one toothbrush that she gave us. 

As we lay in bed – our first time sleeping in a Chinese home, stuffed to the gills, still slightly buzzed from karaoke – we giggled at how ridiculous our day had  been.  Definitely the best all year. 

Digging Our Own Graves

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2009 at 12:49 am

Today, we finally made it to Xiamen’s hot springs.  Aleid and I had been talking about it but then Bianca is hosting a friend visiting from Sweden, which made the visit a little bit more imminent.  Thus, at 12:30 we were at Lun Du trying to figure out to how to get to Riyuegu, Xiamen’s famous hot spring resort.

We paid 148 kuai for the entrance, including a bus there and back (about a half hour away).  Once we got there, we also decided to spring for the 78 package including the fish pool, hot sand, and hot stone massage.  That brought our total to 226 kuai, or $33. 

The resort is quite amazing.  It’s almost like you’re not in China!  It’s clean, beautiful, and remarkably convenient.  A bracelet opens your locker and is used to pay for everything; towels are free and readily available; sandals are turned around for you after you enter a spring; we were offered umbrellas as we went out into the rain. 

We first 泡-ed the hot springs.  (Interesting Chinese note for today – the verb for going into hot springs is the same as the verb for making tea.  You 泡 a hot spring, and you 泡 tea bags in hot water.)  They had springs of every temperature between air temp (around 14 C) up to 40C and even higher.  They also came in every flavor imaginable: cucumber, lemongrass, aloe vera, peppermint, coffee, ginger, ginseng, wine, baijiu, and beer were among those we visited.  The weather – cold and rainy – made it a perfect day for lounging lazily in hot water.  The only thing that would have made it better would have been a glass of wine to drink while we were soaking in it :)

When we finally got around to using our package, things got interesting.  Our first stop was the hot sand, which looked like a big sand box with people lying buried up to their necks.  “Awesome!” we thought . . . and then, as the worker handed us each a shovel, we figured out that it was “self service” – we dig the holes and the workers cover us up.  It was such a ridiculous situation, digging our own graves at a luxury spa, that I didn’t stop laughing the entire time.  It was pretty nice with the weight of sand on top of my body, but the sand wasn’t as warm as I hoped.

We stopped by the fish pond, but it was the end of the day and the fish were full.  I think I got two nibbles; it was nothing compared to my first time in Taiwan.  We also got the hot stone massage, but the stones weren’t hot enough to combat the coolness of the evening.  We followed that up with a trip to the saunas, which fixed the problem quite nicely.  They had one that was 35C and 100% humidity – so basically Xiamen in the summer – but we preferred the 57 and 72C dry saunas, which also smelled really good . . .

On the bus ride, I had an interesting conversation with Aleid about the One-Child Policy.  This is one of those things that I thought I knew about before coming to China.  I knew about the Little Emperor Syndrome, the gender imbalance, etc.  I figured I would never need to ask Chinese friends if they have siblings – of course not, what a stupid question.  But my experiences on this trip have not matched up with this at all.  Almost all of my Chinese friends have siblings; Yong Zhi is one of 4! 

I think that money has a lot to do with it.  According to the policy, each couple is allowed one child unless they’re a rural family and their first child is a girl.  (Or if they’re a minority, which I think is very interesting.)  After the first child, there are heavy fines and penalties to discourage further children.  Xiamen, being a Special Economic Zone; and XiaDa, being such a prominent school, is probably disproportionately rich. 

This would also explain why, on previous trips to China’s more rural Jilin province, I experienced the effects of the One Child Policy more personally.  I remember a conversation with a Korean woman who was reveling in her freedom to have a second child.  I remember hearing that my dear friends Xiao Zhang and Xiao Li were considering having a second but needed to make sure they could take the hit financially.  And I remember how devastated I was when I learned that our taxi driver and housekeeper had conceived a second child but, unable to afford it, had an abortion. 

I hate abortion.  As evil as it is, though, there’s even more wrong with this policy.  There are all the unintended consequences that we hear about in America (Little Emperor Syndrome, gender imbalance, aging population), but the most horrifying to me is the mindset that it has created in the Chinese people.  Based on conversations that I’ve had with various Chinese friends, they think that there are simply too many of them.  They think of themselves as a blight on the earth almost, which makes my heart ache for them.  It also sometimes seems to me as an easy out (especially when people suggest a similar policy in other countries), the ultimate example of passing our problems on to our children . . . or, as it were, not.  The law combined with this mindset make my heart ache more than I can say.  It’s the Culture of Death engraved in law, encouraged by the government, guiltily accepted by the people. 

Tomorrow (December 28th) is the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the Catholic liturgical calendar.  According to the biblical Nativity story, Herod ordered the slaughter of all young boy children in Bethlehem  because he feared the rise of one of them as King of the Jews.  They became the first martyrs of the early church, and are honored on this day shortly after Christmas.  I’m going to pray to them tomorrow, lifting up the people of China, and the millions of my peers across the world who didn’t survive the slaughter either.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

In Uncategorized on December 20, 2009 at 12:47 am

We got back from Wuyishan this morning around 8:30.  The trip was really wonderful – we had beautiful scenery, wonderful new friends, and some unforgettable moments.  We spoke a lot of Chinese and only saw 2 Westerners on the entire trip – getting on the train that we had just gotten off of.

I know that everyone who lives someplace cold wants to vacation in a warm climate, but for a few days I got to experience the opposite.  Let me tell you, it’s quite nice – knowing that your days in the cold are very limited and soon you will be returning to your pleasantly warm home.  The whole weekend as I wore leggings under my jeans and all the tops I had brought under my coat, I was looking forward to wearing skirts and short sleeves again in Xiamen. 

Unfortunately, Xiamen didn’t get this memo . . . the high today was 15°C (60°F).  I wore a dress anyway (albeit with leggings underneath and a sweater, scarf, and jacket on top) out of pure stubbornness.  All day, I felt like a little girl who insisted on dressing herself but buttoned the shirt wrong or something. 

I just got back, but for a lot of people, it’s actually time to leave Xiamen.  Some are just going home for the holidays – Liz left for 3 weeks in Belgium on Wednesday – but some are leaving for good!  “The Americans” (the group from UNC) left last weekend and Eva left today, which means I have basically no American friends left here.  The Dutch group leaves very early tomorrow morning as well.  This is all very sad, but as they’re all going to other countries, we’ll be able to 联系 (connect) on facebook. 

Also, it just happens to be a very fortunate time to lose one’s cell phone (as I just did).  A Dutch friend gave me his cell before he left, which meant all I had to do was get a replacement SIM card.  It took two trips because the only thing they would accept as proof that the number was mine was 5 numbers I’ve dialed in the past month (my original account paperwork and passport were unacceptable as proof), but I really shouldn’t complain.  Entire cost of new cell phone with the same number as before = 15 kuai, or $2. 

I went to Mass this evening.  As I entered and when I left the church, I was asked by several people if I had found my cell phone.  I was confused, as I had only called one man to ask if I had left it on the bus.  Finally, I realized what must have happened and asked if they had all gone to look for it.  “Yes”, they replied. 

As I thought about it, this relatively-small act of kindness moved me to tears.  I guess the weekend was a little emotionally draining because, when we weren’t being treated like long-lost best friends, we felt basically like animals in a zoo.  People would point at us and take pictures of us without permission, acting like we were another of Wuyishan’s famous sites to be pictured.  They would assume we didn’t speak Chinese and talk loudly about the 外国人 (and then bark out “会说中国话!” (You can speak Chinese!) in surprise if we so much as said 你好). 

Anyway, I think I’ve figured out something about Chinese people.  (This is a generalization and there are certainly exceptions, but this is an idea based on my observations over these past few months.)  There are a lot of them – 1.3 billion and counting – and it’s simply too much to be caring towards all of them.  So they don’t really try.  There’s much less “common courtesy” here than I remember in America: less door-holding, more pushing and shoving.  But families and friends are very important to Chinese people, and these people are treated with respect, deference, and love.  Outside the circle, you almost don’t exist to them, but inside the circle your happiness and well-being is of utmost concern.  It’s not that Chinese people are rude to foreigners; it’s that they’re rude to strangers.

Somehow, my church friends (and my dancing friends and some others) have accepted me into their circle.  The way they care for me is so humbling because I don’t think I’m as charitable as they are.  It gives me something to work towards. 

The good thing about the cold weather is that it really is starting to feel like Christmas.  I listened to Christmas songs as I walked between my evening activities, and found the words to one particularly interesting:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you "Be of good cheer"
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
There’ll be much mistletoe-ing
And hearts will be glowing
When love ones are near
It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Only the last few lines are actually true for me this year – no Salvation Army bells, no carolers or concerts, no marshmallows or mistletoe, and no snow.  But 3 out of 19 ain’t bad, especially when they’re those three.

Oh, Say Can You See?

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2009 at 11:09 pm

We started our last day in Wuyishan bright and early by heading back into the scenic area for a ride on the famous (in China) 猪排 bamboo boats. 

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The trip down the Nine-Turn Stream takes about an hour and a half.  Eventually the sun came out and dispelled the fog, but the trip still included about an hour that I will remember among the coldest of my life.  There were rocks shaped like different things all along the way but Aleid and I didn’t catch much of the introduction; all I remember is a Frog’s Mouth.

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Somewhere along the stream my batteries died, so pictures are relatively scarce.  Trust me, though – it was beautiful.

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Back on land, we caught the sightseeing bus to one of the places that the woman at the hostel had circled on our map – 一线天, or A Thread of Sky.  We had no idea what this meant, but we decided to check it out and ended up being glad we did.  Basically, it’s a very narrow passageway through a mountain. 

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At times, it was too narrow for me to pass through facing forwards so I had to crab-walk, but it was pretty cool to look up and see the thin sliver of sky showing through. 

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On the bus headed to the next stop, we were joined by a young Chinese couple.  They told us that they were on their honeymoon and asked if we could walk together.  We agreed, which was definitely a good choice.  First of all, it was nice to have Chinese travel buddies again. 

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I like having real conversations with Chinese people, getting to know them, instead of having the same exchanges over and over and over again. 

Them: “Hello!” 
Me: “你好” 
Them: “You speak Chinese!” 
Me: “Yes.” 
Them: a) “Where are you from?”
           b) “How long have you been studying Chinese?”

Plus, this couple was absolutely adorable. 

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They took pictures in front of everything, crossed bridges holding hands, and delighted in calling each other ‘honey’ after I taught them this term of endearment.  Our first destination was the 大红袍, which actually is probably cooler to hear about than to see.  It’s this special kind of tea that only used to be served to emperors; at one point there were only these 6 trees, which were declared a part of the World Heritage.  In person, it’s basically a few small trees on a ledge halfway up a mountain.

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We decided to walk to the next place, which led us almost 3km through the beautiful scenery of Wuyishan.  I’m glad the walk was so beautiful, because the final destination was not worth a 3km hike.  It was called the 水帘洞 or Water Curtain but more resembled a Water Faucet. 

But man, what an unforgettable day anyway.  It wasn’t the beautiful surroundings that made it so, though – it was the people.  Our adorable couple decided that, since they had two 美女 (beautiful girls), they needed to find us some 帅哥 (good-looking guys), so they got this a group of 3 Singaporean classmates to join us.  The woman then spent the rest of the trip extolling the virtues of a Chinese boyfriend/husband.  (Among them: “Because you’re taller than them, if they don’t listen to you, you can just grab their hair and make them do what you want.”  I asked her, “Then what do you do [as you’re shorter than your husband]?”  Her answer: “I wear high heels.”)

After I asked, they wrote down several ways to congratulate newly-married couples by wishing them well.  Here they are, with my translations:

  • 永结同心 – “May you be forever united with one heart”
  • 早生贵子 – “May you bear children (sons) early”
  • 白头偕老 – “May you grow old together with white hair”
  • 百年好合 – “May you be together for 100 years”
  • 辛福一生 – “May you be blessed throughout your life”

It gets better.  On the bus ride back to the entrance of the park, the couple asked us to sing them a song; in return, they said, they would sing one for us.  Someone came up with the idea of national anthems, and so we all agreed to sing our 国歌.  The Chinese started – at first it was just the couple and the two Chinese students, but as other tourists boarded the bus, they joined in.  Sitting in a crowded bus full of happy, clapping Chinese people singing the March of the Volunteers was a pretty special experience.  Then the Singaporean student sang his national anthem in Malay, Aleid sang [what she knew of] hers in Dutch, and I sang the Star-Spangled Banner.  Somehow I picked the right range and remembered all the words, so I think it wasn’t half bad.  Anyway, what a cool cultural exchange! 

The couple went on to another tourist site, but made the guys take us to dinner.  It was a little awkward, I’m not going to lie.  Maybe it was because of the woman’s teasing, but these boys were so scared of us.  I understood their reluctance to speak English, but I kept asking questions in Chinese and getting one-word answers.  The food was good and they – polite if not friendly – paid for it all. 

After our lunch/dinner it was about time to head back to the train station.  The ride back was shorter by 2 hours and more comfortable, because we sprung the extra 15 yuan ($2) to get a lower bunk.  Ah, traveling in the lap of luxury!

Ratio of Mountains:Days – 2:1

In Uncategorized on December 17, 2009 at 10:20 pm

On Thursday morning we were woken at 8:30 – unfortunately, we had asked for a wake-up call at 8 . . . Apparently the Chinese version of a wake-up call is to call you a half-hour later, wanting to know why you haven’t woken up yet.  We got dressed in all our layers in record time and went downstairs to meet our driver and new travel buddy, Xu. 

Our destination was two waterfalls a little ways away from Wuyishan proper.  The first one was 青龙, or Green Dragon.  It took us just over an hour to climb, but we were treated to a beautiful waterfall at the top.

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We walked back down on a highway, surrounded by green mountains that reminded me a lot of Jurassic Park.

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Lunch was definitely the low point of the entire trip.  Our driver took us to a restaurant, which should have triggered warning signs.  We ordered 3 dishes and a soup, for which the owner charged us 150 元.  That meant 50 kuai ($7) per person, making our mediocre fare the 4th most expensive meal I’ve eaten since I came to Xiamen. 

As we started our second climb of the day – 龙川, or Dragon River – I discovered that it’s easier to climb when you’re mad.  I was calculating all the things that 50 kuai could have bought me –

  • 1 night in our hostel in a room – with a view of the mountain
  • a burrito at the famed Havana restaurant that I haven’t been to yet
  • a month of internet and phone
  • 12 ounces of cheese
  • 10 DVDs, or 5 DVD-9s
  • dinner and a movie
  • 10 glasses of milktea with tapioca pearls

It was pretty ridiculous.  I’m still stewing over it.

Anyway, the second waterfall was also very nice, and only took us 40 minutes to climb. 

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We rested back at the hotel for a bit, and then went out to explore the city some more.  When we got back at 8:30 the door to the hostel had already been locked for the night!  I guess Wuyishan is not where you go to experience night life in China . . .

The Midnight Train, Going Aaaanyyywhere!

In Uncategorized on December 16, 2009 at 10:00 pm

After grabbing a late dinner, Aleid and I went to the train station for our 10:15 train.  After a wait, we got to board and check out our living conditions for the next 14 hours.  We had bought hard-sleeper tickets, but the name isn’t really that appropriate.  First of all, the hard-sleepers aren’t any harder than the soft-sleepers; or rather, the soft-sleepers are no softer than the hard-sleepers.  (With that said, both are softer than the bed in my dorm room.  I once considered compiling a list of things that are softer than my bed but gave up when I realized the list – including most rocks – would be prohibitively, and perhaps infinitely, long.)  So the hard-sleeper berths are really just second-class beds.  In the soft-sleeper cars, each room has two sets of bunkbeds.  In the hard-sleeper cars, each ‘room’ – or perhaps more aptly each ‘cubicle’ – has 6 beds on three levels.  There are no doors, which gives you no privacy, no security, and no control over the lights.  It also turns the entire train into one big sleepover – with strangers! 

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We put our stuff away and then climbed up to our bunks on the top level, about 7 feet off the ground.  The upper bunks are the cheapest (hence our berth of choice) because they are less convenient and don’t offer enough vertical space to sit up. 

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They do, however, offer a great vantage point for observing the rest of the train.  The best part of the show was our conductor – he was so funny, he should seriously be on TV.

The lights went out at 10 and came back on at 6, but I slept until 9 or so.  (This is why I love traveling by night train!)  The top bunk is fine for sleeping, but once you’re awake it’s somewhat like torture.  The trip was ‘only’ 14 hours, though, and we arrived soon enough.

Two bus rides later, we arrived at our hostel (枫枫旅馆).  It’s in a kind of shady area, but the staff are nice and very helpful.  We got settled in our room (30 元, or just over $4, per night) until they called us to say that lunch was ready.  After lunch, one of the women laid out a plan for our next few days.  It was more expensive than we were thinking, because the entrance to the scenic area is quite pricy (about $20), but we ended up with 2 1/2 full days of Wuyishan for 475 元 ($65). 

The plan for that afternoon was to see 天游, or the Heavenly Tour Peak.  In a place like Wuyishan (basically, Wuyi Mountain), most activities are 爬山-related.  (爬山 literally means ‘climbing mountains’ but is more like hiking.  Actually, the best description is really really intense stair-climbing, up a mountain.)  This was one of my favorite mountain climbs, as we could see where we were going.

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The view was beautiful the whole way up. 

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I think it was right about here

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that I had one of those realizations: I’m climbing a MOUNTAIN in CHINA, where I currently LIVE, while TU is having FINALS!

After we made it back down (legs shaking by the end), we took a bus into town.  We walked around, doing some shopping for souvenirs.  Best find of the night – a toothpick-holder shaped like my new obsession, 茄子.  (Interestingly, despite my love for all things containing 茄子, I think the English word, ‘eggplant’, doesn’t really sound that appealing.) 

The high of the day in Wuyishan was 7°C (45°F), so the only time we were warm the whole day was while climbing the mountain.  We returned to the hostel around 8, to spend the rest of the night burrowing under comforters and piles of clothes, trying to finally be warm.