Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Touring Changsha and Beijing with Garrett and Bethany

I deliberately waited to post an entry until after my brother Garrett and his wife Bethany came to visit us.  I knew I would have plenty to write about since they had never been to China (or anywhere in the Eastern hemisphere).  Plus, Stacie, the kids, and I had yet to venture outside of the Hunan Province since we arrived last August.  We had been to a few place in Hunan and I have written about those (Zhangjiajie, Jinggang, and Xiangtan), but never farther than that.  We were all looking forward to the visit from family and the opportunity to share in this experience with them. 

Garrett and Bethany arrived on a super late Sunday night flight on China Eastern Airlines that went through Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and then our new home city of Changsha.  I hired a driver to take me to the airport to pick them up.  Well, my fluent-in-Mandarin SUU assistant, Karisa, made the call initially.  I simply had to get picked up, tell the guy in Chinese what the flight number was (I'm getting very good at numbers) and that they were coming in on China Eastern.  I basically said in Chinese "China East airplane," but I think he got the idea.  The conversation was very limited for the 45 minutes to the airport.  I burned through all my Chinese in about 2 minutes and then watched a movie on my iPad while we drove.  When we got to the airport, the plane was delayed.  The driver seemed a little impatient, but he was very nice.  There were a few other foreigners wandering through the airport from other flights and my driver kept looking at me as if to say "Hey, there are some foreigners, how about them?" as if any foreigners would do.

Finally, after waiting an extra hour, Garrett and Bethany finally came through the gate.  I was so excited to see them.  It had been so long since we've seen any family that it was a bit emotional for me.  We had a difficult first semester adjusting to life in China and were just starting to do well in about January.  Personally, I worried a little that seeing family would trigger that "I want to go home now" impulse in me.  But, that didn't happen.  I was just excited to see my brother, who just dropped a fortune to come visit me.  Plus, anyone who thinks he may have come to Changsha for the vacation and planned to see our family on the side has never been to this place.  I did discover later that it was kind of their big anniversary trip.  How romantic!  I'm sure that staying in a small apartment with a family of 7 in a less-than-hygienic country killed the mood pretty quickly.  However, Garrett assured me that after all the island, Mexican, and Alaskan cruises they've been on, they were ready for a new kind of experience.

The morning after the arrival (Monday), they were pretty jet lagged.  I was kind enough to not plan anything that morning.  We woke them up just before noon and took them to Liu Jie's.  Garrett and Bethany had been reading about our favorite restaurant in this blog (we eat there about 4 times a week) and his favorite SUU teacher (besides me of course), Earl Mulderink, had just come to Hunan Normal University for a guest lecture and raved about the great hole in the wall restaurant I had taken him to.  So, Garrett was primed and ready to try the food there.  And the verdict...they loved it of course.  We ended up eating there twice during his stay because it's so good and so cheap.  After lunch, we took him over to the university and showed him the scenic spot on campus with the pagoda and the pond with the goldfish just at the base of Yuelu mountain.  We hiked the back side of the mountain and showed Garrett and Bethany the interesting grave sites and monuments on the mountain.  The Japanese had invaded many parts of China during what they call the War of Japanese Aggression (1937-1945), including the city of Changsha.  On the top of Yuelu is a monument of a Japanese soldier kneeling in apology.  Stacie's friend, Lily, told her that the monument was created by the Chinese to show what they think the Japanese response should be following the war.  We found it interesting and thought Garrett would too since he is a huge history buff.  Plus, Stacie and I have been a little surprised by the continuing level of hostility the older Chinese exhibit toward the Japanese people.  In fact, our friend Wouldbe told us that the characters for Japanese person (日本人) also mean (go f*&# yourself).  So, if you say "Japanese person" in the right context, you are using a profane expression.  And, it's probably no coincidence that they chose the Japanese as the basis for this slur.  

After we hiked the back side of Yuelu, we went down the mountain and walked over to east entrance of the mountain, which is very near to our apartment.  We took the cable car to the top, enjoyed the views of the city since it was such a clear beautiful day, and then took the mountain chute/slide down to the bottom.  We kept joking that Garrett and Bethany were such good luck with the weather.  It was supposed to be raining the entire time they were in Changsha, but it didn't really rain at all.  Plus, the sky was blue and the pollution was minimal.  When you book a flight months in advance, you can't possibly know what kind of weather you're in for, so we were very fortunate in that regard.  After the mountain, everyone was tired.  We chose a very unique kind of dining experience for dinner, the local Pizza Hut.  Garrett really wanted to try this pizza they had with salmon and wasabi on it, but they were all out.  Must be in high demand or something!  Anyway, the food was very good and the Pizza Huts here in China are considered upscale dining.  The people look a bit better dressed when you go in there, which is strange compared to how the restaurants are in America.  

The next morning (Tuesday), we left very early to catch a high speed train to Beijing.  None of us had ever been on the high speed train before and it was quite a nice experience.  There was plenty of leg room, the chairs were pretty comfortable, and the ride was very smooth since we are obviously traveling on rails.  Plus, the security lines are a joke in China.  They figure that nobody would really dare do anything so they make you just put your bag on a conveyer belt and walk through the metal detector.  It takes about 5 seconds.  Then, you go right to your gate.  It's much easier than airport travel.  I was a little nervous about traveling so soon after the knife attack at the railway station in Kunming that killed 29 people and injured a 130 more, but most places in China are fairly safe. The high speed to Beijing takes about 6 hours compared to the slow train, which is more like 20 hours.  Stacie and I had talked about taking the slow train, but thought Garrett and Bethany would probably not want a 20 hour train ride after just getting off an 18 hour flight.  Originally, I thought we would be going to Beijing without a Chinese guide and I was scared to death.  My Chinese is NOT sufficient to get around, but I hoped the subway system would be easy (in most cities it is) and I thought the hotel staff could help us find our tours to the various sites.  However, we lucked out and our friend Wouldbe agreed to take us around Beijing.  He is from Changsha and couldn't afford the high speed train (and we couldn't afford to pay his fare), so he left a day early on the slow train and met us at the train station when we arrived.  Actually, he wasn't waiting for us when we got there.  We exited the train station and stood right out front for about 45 minutes as I tried to call Wouldbe and figure out where he was.  He kept saying, "I'm in the South Plaza" and I would reply "I'm in the South Plaza, just look for me."  Then, he would say "Tell me what you see" and then I would describe the surroundings.  Eventually, we discovered that Wouldbe had gone to the wrong train station and had to take the subway back to where we were.  It was frustrating at the time, but how do you get mad at a guy who slept on a wood slat for 20 hours so he could help your family have an easier time in Beijing.  Wouldbe is the best!  

We found our hotel, which is in a university district where Wouldbe's cousin Wu Kai is going to school.  We thought it would be easier for Wouldbe to be near his cousin and the subway provided very easy access to the city center.  We were very happy with our hotel accommodations, especially considering how cheap it was.  We paid 100 yuan per room per night (about $33).  Since we had three rooms for three nights, our total hotel bill was $300.  So cheap!  Plus, the beds were softer than the ones we've been sleeping on for 7 months and the toilet and shower were Western-style if you know what I mean (no squatting).  Garrett, Bethany, and Nicolas slept in one room (again, damper on any anniversary getaway stuff), Ezra, Wouldbe and I in one room, and all the girls in the other.  First thing Wouldbe said to me when we got in the room is "Do you care if I sleep in just my underwear?"  I said "Knock yourself out."  Wouldbe then said, "Huh?"  Wouldbe also very much enjoyed using the shower.  I think he showered morning and night during our stay because the water was "free."  In China, he explained to me that the students usually only shower once a week because they have to go to a special place and pay to shower.  Otherwise, they just clean themselves in the sink at their dorm room.  So, Wouldbe was living it up with his twice per day showers.  

That first night after we checked in, we headed over to the famous Wangfujing Snack Street where they sell all kinds of delicacies like silkworms, sea horses, star fish, and scorpions.  The place was at the very top of Ezra's To-Do list.  He REALLY wanted to go here and we all wanted to take him.  He made a special deal with his Uncle Garrett that he had to try everything that Ezra would eat.  I told him he needed to make a deal that he would eat anything Lucy would eat.  It's a much safer bet.  But, he was stuck.  If the kids ate it, he would have to man up and eat it too.  When we got to the snack street, I had a harder time wrapping my mind around what we were about to do.  I guess seeing the live scorpions squirming around on those sticks really brought it home for me.  I was carrying Lucy and she buried her face in my neck and said "I don't want to eat it."  I told her she didn't have to eat anything she didn't want to eat.  She felt better, but still would not look at the bugs.  We purchased a stick of scorpions for 25 yuan (about $6).  That's pretty pricey for food in China, but they know the foreigners will come and pay it.  And guess what, they were right.  Ezra took the first nibble and said he thought it was pretty good.  Then, it was my turn and I nearly put it in my mouth about 4 times before finally sticking it in there and chewing.  Then, Garrett ate one, Annie, and then Nicolas.  We all agreed that it tasted a lot like a potato chip and the battle was more psychological than anything else.  Next, we tried the starfish.  We all took a bite, but it was kind of hard to chew.  The consensus on that one was that it tasted like tree bark or wood of some kind.  That's all we tried.  We guessed the fried sea horses would probably also taste like potato chips and nobody really wanted to try the giant juicy looking bugs.  So, that was that.

The next morning (Wednesday), we got on the subway and headed to the train station to catch a train to the Badaling area of the Great Wall.  Wouldbe and Wu Kai (the boys and I kept calling him Wookie) were our guides.  I was concerned about going to the Badaling area since it is the most heavily visited part of the wall, but we were willing to go wherever they wanted to take us.  We waited at the train station for about an hour since we barely missed the earlier train.  As we waited, we noticed people forming a huge line to get to the train.  I asked Wouldbe what they were doing and he said that the seats were first come first serve.  This always makes me nervous since we had such a big group and the children needed to sit close to us on the train.  We got in line, but were kind of far back.  When they opened the gate everyone started pushing and shoving and running to the train.  Stacie told me not to worry and that we would get seats.  So, we walked quickly to the train, got on a car and there were still plenty of seats. I'm still not sure why the Chinese are so averse to forming real lines and to having reserved seating.  It's just nuts over here sometimes when you are trying to get on a bus, hail a cab, or do anything that normally requires a little bit of etiquette.

When we got to the entrance area to the wall, it was about 1 p.m. and everyone was hungry.  There really wasn't much to eat at the bottom of the wall since it was mostly souvenir shops.  We did find some fried rice and fried noodles that were pretty terrible, but we ate them anyway.  Plus, everything is overpriced as you might expect, like having to pay $1.25 for your noodles instead of 75 cents.  My favorite part of going to the tourist sites (apart from the sites themselves) is bartering for souvenirs.  I think the children would agree as we always give them their own money and let them loose to negotiate.  They've gotten really good at it too.  Annie and Nicol got a sweatshirt that says "I climbed the Great Wall,"  Lucy got a shirt that says "I love China" (she SO doesn't love China), Evelynn got a shirt that says "I love Beijing," Nicol and Ezra both got those conical straw peasant hats, and Lucy and Evelynn both got little stuffed animal Pandas (Lucy appropriately named hers Souvenir). Oh, the little girls also got a version of those Russian Matryoshka dolls (nesting dolls) that were Pandas (did I mention they love Pandas).  Lucy is so good at naming her souvenirs.  This one was called "Tons of Heads."  

Oh, so the highlight of the Great Wall was not souvenir shopping and eating bad fried rice.  The wall was absolutely incredible.  It's hard to describe how amazing it was.  The climb was pretty steep in places, but the weather was moderate, the crowd was pretty minimal, and we very much enjoyed the scenery in the area outside of Beijing.  It's always nice to get out of the city a little.  When we were in Zhangjiajie back in September, we felt rushed by our tour guide.  This time, we were able to go very slowly with the children and just enjoy the fact that we were on the FREAKIN' GREAT WALL OF CHINA.  I felt like father of the year taking my children to this glorious place.  You can look at pictures in a book or on the internet, but I was really looking forward to seeing how high the wall was and making some snap judgments about the viability of climbing over the thing during a siege.  Plus, the amount of labor that would go into building a wall that size that stretched across all of China is astounding.  As I walked along it, I kept thinking about how many of the workers were killed during its construction, either from exhaustion or from trying to run away and getting buried alive in the wall by their masters.  We kept asking Wouldbe questions about the wall and apparently he knows as much about his country's history as American students know about theirs. Anyway, we spent all day at the wall, which is what we really wanted to do.  When we got home, everyone commented that this was their favorite part of the trip.  After we returned to the city of Beijing, we found a very nice Japanese restaurant and had Japanese style tofu, hot pot, fresh sashimi, and some other dishes that were suspiciously like American dishes but we loved them.  For example, what kind of Japanese restaurant serves chicken fingers? Also, who serves tuna salad with garlic on white toast? We liked it, but the national origins of the food were a bit puzzling.  The restaurant owners took our picture with a Polaroid camera, we wrote some English sentiments on it, and posted it on the wall.  The Stein family is forever enshrined on the wall of a restaurant in Beijing.

The next day (Thursday), we intended to hit the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.  We ended up spending far too much time at the Forbidden City and never had the chance to get to the Summer Palace.  I really wanted to see it, but I've never been too big on rushing things.  Often what happens is you barely see a few things instead of seeing one thing really well.  Plus, everyone was enjoying the walk around the Forbidden City.  There was so much to see there and so many interesting stories about events that happened in each of the buildings.  The site is absolutely massive and I know we barely scratched the surface of what was there, but we feel like we saw a great deal.  One of our favorites was touring the Treasure Gallery where we got to see some really old relics from different dynasties.  I think sometimes I forget just how little history there is with my country compared to China.  I remember traveling to London in 2006 with Eric and we were amazed at some of the architecture from the 1500s.  The Forbidden City was even more fascinating because of the design of the buildings and the age of course.   My favorite moment from the Forbidden City, though, was when someone came up to Garrett and Bethany and tried to sell them a souvenir book with pictures of the Forbidden City.  I had taught Garrett that "Wo bu yao" means "I don't want" in Chinese.  With great confidence, Garrett said to the man, "Wo bu wow."  The man laughed and corrected him.  Then, I started helping Garrett to negotiate.  The man was persistent, but we ended up getting Garrett a pretty good deal on the book.  Then, the man made the mistake of trying to sell to me, but I'm a seasoned professional barterer now.  I'll tell you how the conversation went in English, but we spoke in Chinese (as much as I could anyway).  He said, "Do you want a book?"  I said, "I already have one."  He said, "Do you have this one?"  I said no and he offered to give it to me for 20 yuan.  I told him, "I'll give you 1 jiao for it" (less than a penny).  He pulled a coin out of his pocket and said "This is one jiao!"  I said, "I know!"  Then, he said something in Chinese I couldn't understand (probably called me a Japanese person if you know what I mean) and stormed off.  Maybe it was rude of me, but they are so pushy at these tourist sites and think they can take advantage of the foreigners.  One person actually tried to barter with Annie on some item and Annie offered her 50 yuan when the lady wanted a hundred.  Finally, she agreed to give it to Annie for 50, so Annie gave her a 100 yuan bill expecting change.  The lady gave her fake money in return.  But, Annie has been using Chinese money for months, so she refused to take it until the lady gave her the real change.  So, I don't really feel badly about offering the guy one penny for his book.  I do want to add that Garrett was picking up Chinese pretty well for only being here for just a few days.  Some of the words I heard him use in Chinese were: this, excuse me, thank you, hello, goodbye, one, I want, and how much is this?  Not bad, eh.  It was kind of funny how Garrett and Bethany thought our Chinese was good.  I tried to explain to him that it's terrible, but I guess a guy that knows a couple hundred words probably looks impressive to a guy who knows like 5 words.

After we saw the Forbidden City, we took a bus to Tiananmen Square.  I really wanted to see the scene of the 1989 student demonstrations.  We had to go through security to get into the square.  The square looked very massive and we could see Mao's mausoleum in the distance.  However, we took a wrong turn and ended up back inside the Forbidden City.  Unfortunately, once you've entered the Forbidden City, they will not allow you to go back through to Tiananmen.  So, we were stuck and said "Well, at least we kind of saw Tiananmen Square.  That night for dinner, we went to an amazing restaurant and had Peking Duck. Stacie really wanted to try the world famous Peking Duck and so we made it a priority to try this.  In the end, we all loved it, but Stacie thought it was just ok.  She said, "Next to the bacon wrapped duck at the Painted Pony in St. George, this is nothing."  I would probably agree, but this was pretty good stuff. Also, the duck came with a sauce that everyone thought was amazing.  They were like "What is this sauce???"  Finally, I told them "It's just hoisin sauce, haven't you ever had that before."  Apparently, they hadn't.  

The next morning (Friday), we departed from Beijing.  I won't bore you with the details about how we missed our first train and had to take a later train.  It was quite stressful, but I refused to let it ruin the trip.  We had a glorious time and nothing will ever take away from it.  I think this blog has gotten long enough, so I won't tell you about our Saturday outing to Orange Island in Changsha, the Hunan University barbecue where we ate oysters, snails, eggplant, and stinky tofu, or Garrett and Bethany's first experience having church by conference call.  I'll let them tell you about it if you ever have a chance to ask them.  Garrett tells me he is working on a blog entry himself to add to my commentary.  I think that will be wonderful to hear his perspective on the trip too.  When he sends it to me, I will add it to the bottom of this blog and repost the link for everyone. 

Garrett, Bethany and I with Liu Jie and her husband.  They own the restaurant together and they work very long hours. 

Evelynn apparently LOVES Beijing.  We like how her shirt has English and Chinese or what we call "Chinglish."

Garrett and Bethany on Orange Island in Changsha.

Our entire travel party at the bottom of the Great Wall.

It's not often I get a picture with so much love between these two.  They do like each other, but arms draped around each other?  A definite keeper.

Out to eat with Garrett and Beth.  The chopsticks were difficult for them and I think they started getting mad every time we would ask for a spoon for them to use.

The view from the top of Yuelu Mountain in Changsha.  It was such a nice day even though the forecast predicted rain.

We gave up our bedroom to our guests.  Hope they enjoyed the most comfortable bed in the house with it's whopping 2 inches of padding on top of a wood slat.

Kids are obviously psyched about our hotel in Beijing.

Here we are at the Forbidden City.

Maybe their anniversary was a bit romantic after all.

I introduced Garrett to my motto for China, which is "close enough."  The maps, the translations on T-shirts, the quality of products.  Everything to me seems to point to this motto that close is good enough.  In this case, calling South America "South Afarica" is clearly NOT close enough.

Of course we had to play ping pong while Garrett was here.  We often had people walk by and watch us as we played.  For those wondering the score.  I won the first two games and Garrett won the third.  His argument was that he was just getting warmed up those first two games.  My argument was that I started getting tired the third game and that's why he won. 

The cable car ride up to the top of Yuelu Mountain is always so beautiful and relaxing.

It's always nice to have a little English on the menus.  It helps you know what you are in for.  In this case, Garrett and I really wanted to try this pizza, but they were all out of them.

Something tells me Ezra will remember this for the rest of his life.

We had to eat something and to our not so great surprise, they had noodles and rice.  It wasn't very good.

We got this a lot in Zhangjiajie National Park too.  People are at one of the most popular tourist sites in the entire world and what do they want to take a picture of?  That's right, the famous Stein family children!

Our wonderful guides.  That's Wouldbe on the left and Wu Kai aka Wookie on the right.

Uncle Garrett was absolutely amazing with his little nieces.  They absolutely adored him and cried when they had to say goodbye. 

The children wanted to touch the Great Wall.  You can walk on top (which we did most of the time) and you can walk on these sidewalks next to the wall.

It cost us 20 yuan to dress each kid up in traditional Chinese clothing.  Everyone liked it except for Lucy, of course. 

Garrett found this shop with all these traditional Chinese instruments.  He ended up purchasing this one and bringing it home to America.  The guy also had a regular violin hanging on the wall to the left of where Garrett is in this picture.  Garrett motioned to the man that he knew how to play it and the guy pulled it off the wall and handed it to him.  Garrett played a little music for him (even though he had a hard time with it being out of tune), but the people around us were all impressed.  I think it gave Garrett some added credibility in buying this Chinese instrument that he at least has some familiarity with music and isn't just another dumb tourist.  The man taught Garrett some techniques for playing and he plans to practice when he gets home.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Chinese Spring Festival and Stacie's Birthday

It has been a great month here in China.  I posted a blog right after Christmas providing an update on everything that happened during the holiday season.  I should say American holiday season because nobody cares about Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas here in China.  Since that time, we've been right smack in the middle of Chinese holiday season.  The Spring Festival (known in the U.S. as Chinese New Year) went for an entire month and was pretty interesting.  The first thing we noticed was that everyone left.  Well...not everyone, but we noticed many fewer people on the sidewalks near our house, which was wonderful.  We didn't have to elbow our way through crowds of people to get where we wanted to go, so we went for many leisurely walks along the streets of Changsha near Hunan Normal University (which was especially empty with all the students gone).  Unfortunately, all the business owners left too, so practically nothing was open.  The big supermarkets were open most of the time, so we did not starve, but we did have to cook all our meals.  Because school was out and I was incredibly burned out from a busy fall semester, we tried to take advantage of the down time and rested quite a bit.  But, we also had the opportunity to do some fun things during the break.

One memorable activity was attending the Changsha city fireworks.  I have written about the fireworks before since they light them off from Orange Island (which divides the city) every Saturday during the warm months.  We have enjoyed this before since we live right by the river and can walk to the fireworks in less than 5 minutes.  But, this time was absolutely spectacular.  The city really put on quite a show for the Chinese New Year.  Wow were we impressed!  It's so interesting how the Chinese can design fireworks that look so much different from the ones we are used to in the U.S. They often explode into various shapes and designs and we find ourselves sort of mesmerized while we watch to see what might come next.  The ones in the U.S. sometimes look the same and I get bored after a while.  We also finally had a chance to buy some of the Chinese lanterns from a vendor on the street.  He sold them for 5 yuan each.  I bought one for everyone in the family.  The lanterns have some kind of wax square that you mount to the bottom of the lantern.  Then, you have to work pretty hard to get the wax to ignite (holding the lighter to it for a minute or two).  Once it's lit, you have to wait for the lantern to fill with hot air before gently pushing it skyward.  A couple of times, I didn't wait long enough for the air to fill the lantern and I pushed it up only to have to descend into a row of bushes and nearly ignite them.  A really kind Chinese man helped me rescue the bushes from burning by continually jumping into the them and grabbing the lantern.  He kept saying "bu dui" (not correct) and smiled.  The children really enjoyed watching the glowing lanterns get higher and higher and smaller and smaller.  I think it helped that they had seen these lanterns in Disney movies like Mulan and Tangled. Although we very much enjoyed the fireworks, we generally did not appreciate the constant barrage of firecrackers that were being lit off almost every day and during all hours of the night.  Seriously, people were lighting off firecrackers right outside our apartment all night long.  Plus, it's not just the sound of the firecrackers going off, it's also the car alarms that are triggered from the firecrackers.  It was really hard to sleep for many of days in early February.  But, we admired the enthusiasm that the Chinese exhibited during the New Year (the year of the horse apparently). 

We also had a chance to go to Orange Island for a picnic.  The children have always wanted to walk across the bridge to Orange Island since we pretty much see it every day across the river and have taken the bus over the river many times.  Even though it was during the colder months of the year, it was still quite beautiful.  We packed some sandwiches, laid out a blanket, and played some badminton with the children.  We also walked around parts of the island to see the fireworks square (where they light all the fireworks off), some ponds with big orange fish in them, and beautiful trees with flowers.  The only bad part of the trip was that we are always celebrities when we take the whole family out.  We don't get as much attention when we go out in smaller groups or if we stick close to campus where people are getting used to seeing us.  But, any time we go somewhere with the entire family and it's an area where people are not used to seeing us, we get an unbelievable amount of attention.  Some of it is very friendly as people will ask us questions or smile at us.  Other times, they will look at us with completely expressionless faces, with their mouths slightly agape.  It's a little uncomfortable, especially if they walk right up to us (within a few feet) and just stand there and look at us.  A couple of times, I would say "ni hao" (hello) just to break the awkward silence.  Many times, they will just say nothing in response to my greeting.  I'm not sure how it's my fault that the situation is awkward.  I'm trying to be friendly.  I joke with the children sometimes when I tell them the scene reminds me of a line from the fairly stupid movie Madagascar.  In it, these penguin characters say "Smile and wave, boys...smile and wave."  That's how we feel here sometimes with our limited language skills or a lack of responsiveness from some of the Chinese people.  All we can do is smile and wave.  But, we always try to be friendly with others regardless of how much of that friendliness is reciprocated.  And, I must say it is often reciprocated in the most wonderful ways.  It's just those few awkward moments we have to laugh about sometimes.

Another special experience we had during the break was the chance to help the Parrenos in Xiangtan.  Jackie was expecting their third baby in January and needed Stacie and Annie to come down to help with the children when they needed to go to the hospital and when they returned home after the delivery.  Two days past Jackie's due date, Stacie and Annie headed down to Xiangtan thinking the baby would be coming very soon.  It ended up being kind of a nice break for them as they waited for a whole week with no sign of the baby.  They didn't want to return home because they were worried the baby would come right after they left.  So, they just waited.  Meanwhile, I was home with the younger four children cooking, doing laundry, and keeping everyone entertained.  I consider myself a pretty capable dad, but everything is more complicated in China and the laundry situation is a little tricky without a real dryer.  After that first week away from Stacie, I was very confident I had figured it out and had mastered the art of parenthood (joking by the way).  I told Stacie I was doing fine, but she didn't believe me and told me to bring the kids to Xiangtan.  So, we went down and were there for another week helping the Parrenos with their new baby.  It was such a neat experience staying in their house with them as they awaited their new arrival, being able to show them our friendship, and seeing them show their other small children their new little brother for the very first time.  I think they were worried they were inconveniencing us by having us there for so long, but we were so happy to do it. 

Anyway, school has started up again (2 weeks now).  They cut my class load from 7 classes and 320 students to 3 classes and 120 students.  Much improved!  Plus, I've pretty much decided to do whatever the heck I want in my classes.  I don't think the university really cares.  They seem to just want a foreigner to go in there every day and speak English to them.  So, I'm going to teach them some stuff they'll never learn over here, like public speaking, critical thinking, debate, intercultural communication, and listening skills. Should be much more fun for me and hopefully for them too.  I noticed when I did pronunciation drills with them last semester that they had this "We have been doing this since kindergarten" attitude.  So, maybe I should let them more "naturally" pick up on the right pronunciation as I teach them other things.  Who knows.  I'm also excited to have more of a chance to continue my own research projects.  I've been working on two projects simultaneously right now, preparing to submit them to an upcoming academic conference. It feels good to be a communication scholar again.  I really feel more like my previous self professionally than I did last semester when I was just buried with things to do.  Apart from teaching and research, we are also getting the American Studies Center underway for this semester.  We had our grand opening in January and then closed the office for the holiday.  My new student assistant, Karisa (a delightful person who speaks Chinese from serving an LDS mission in Taiwan), just arrived and will be helping me get activities planned for this semester.  We will also have more regular office hours in the ASC, with English tutoring and walk in visits for people wanting to learn more about American culture.

Things continue to be interesting around here.  Every day is something new and exciting.  Nicolas, Ezra and I witnessed a fight at the local supermarket between two of the employees.  One employee screamed at the top of his lungs at another female employee as he swung a mop handle at her head.  Then, he tried to stomp on her foot and when that didn't work, he spat on her shoes.  Same store where the incident occurred with the "nut" lady if you recall that story.  There was also another incident where we were walking toward this man on the street.  I was holding Evelynn's hand and I saw him walking toward us.  As he walked by, he unscrewed the cap on his thermos and threw the water on Evelynn's leg.  It was clearly intentional.  I yelled "hey" really loudly, but he just kept walking by.  Someone needs to teach me some Chinese profanity and soon!  I don't know a single word to be honest.  Anyway, there is a mix of good and bad experiences here, but most are very pleasant.  

The next big things happening for the Stein family (to be reported in the next blog) is that my brother Garrett and his wife Bethany will be coming in two and half weeks to visit us in China.  They will be staying with us a few days in Changsha and we will also be going up to Beijing, where we will visit the Forbidden City, the emperor's Summer Palace, the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, and the famous Wufangjing Snack Street, where you can buy and eat scorpions, cicadas, starfish, seahorses, and a variety of other delicacies.  Also, Nicolas and Ezra have been invited to join a 14 week Kung Fu class starting this Saturday.  Of course they couldn't be more excited. 

When we went to Martyr's Park (while Stacie and Annie were in Xiangtan), I paid this guy 50 yuan to draw a portrait of me.  The sign said it would take 15 minutes, but it took him one hour.  I think he had trouble drawing a foreign face and his big bizi (nose).  We eventually drew a crowd of over a hundred people (I had Nicolas count) who wanted to watch the giant foreigner.  After he was finished with his drawing, I said "Wo yao toufa" (I want hair).  The artist laughed and took off his hat to reveal he had the same haircut I did.

Our favorite restaurant Liu Jie's.  The back room has a window looking into the kitchen.

When Stacie and Annie were in Xiangtan, I was trying to find things to feed the children.  I had this bag of frozen tuna, but how on earth do you defrost this?  I tried this method, which worked surprisingly well.  Stacie told me later that I could just run water over it for a few minutes. Duh!!

More pictures from when Stacie and Annie abandoned me in Xiangtan.  The girls wanted me to try to braid their hair since that's what Stacie and Annie always do for them.  They absolutely LOVE having cute hair.  This was the best I could do unfortunately.

And Lucy was NOT ok with the result!

Stacie insisted I bring the children down to Xiangtan since she had already been gone a week, but I really did not want to face the bus station during the crowded holiday time.  See what I mean?

The Parreno's new baby, Victor.

We tried a new fruit.  Starfruit.  Looks interesting, tastes not so great.

The wonderful street we live on during the Spring Festival.  Where did everyone go?

Family walk around Taozi lake near our house.  We come here often since it's so close by.

We are trying to figure out how to light this Chinese lantern and fill it with the hot air.

Same Ezra he always was.  Loves to be outside and collect bugs and other creatures.  Here, he found a frog.

Chinese New Year fireworks.

We wanted to ride the Changsha ferris wheel, but it was closed during the holiday.  Bummer!  Apparently, it's tied for 5th tallest in the world.

At the local Saibaiwei.  Tasted just about as good as back home.  Hard to find sandwiches in China in general.  Even had that distinct Subway smell inside.

Our picnic at Orange Island. 

Good looking kids.  Keep in mind that like 5 other people are taking pictures of my children at the same time I am.

Year of the Horse.

The little girls having fun in the apartment. 

Stacie on our 16th anniversary (February 7th).  We went out for Ch...Japanese food.  Yum!

Still freezing here all the time.  Everyone is ready to go outside.

Can you believe how nice this Pizza Hut is?  In China, it's like fine dining.

The blog probably makes it seem like we eat fast food all the time.  Maybe like once a month is all, but it's always fun when we do.

I baked Stacie a chocolate cake from scratch for her birthday.  It turned out really  great.  In fact, she said it was too chocolatey.  First time I have ever heard her say that since we've been married.  Also, see that sweatshirt she's wearing.  I went back and bought the funny sweatshirt from a previous blog.  It says "New York Massachunats" on it.  Yes, spelling is a problem here in China.  We got such a kick out of it, I decided she had to have it!

Ok, my Chinese is bad so I'm not sure what those first two characters say, but the last two I do know.  They are the characters for "dog" and "meat."  What kind of restaurant is this?

This is more what I'm used to eating.  These chickens are always here just roaming around whenever we walk up this street.  Apparently, when they first get a new chicken, they tie it's legs so it can't leave the vicinity.  After the chicken is used to his/her surrounding, they take the string off and the chicken knows to stay home.

Second video of people staring at us in China as they drive by.  


I love this video!  This guy has a big wooden top and he whips it to spin it.  I SO want to get one of these before I come home.  The video doesn't do it justice, but it makes this really loud cracking noise when he whips it.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Holidays, ASC Grand Opening, and Crazy Lady Throwing Nuts at my Head

I really thought that just a few people in my family were reading my blog even though I am aware that I made it a public blog.  It turns out that 11,000 people from 10 different countries have looked at my blog at least once since I started it.  I'm a little surprised that anyone actually cares what we are doing over here apart from just being safe and sound.  The only reason it's a "public" blog is because it doesn't have anything too personal and I'm just too lazy to send everyone in my family and my closest friends a private invitation to join my blog.  So, it's out there for the world to see.  I sincerely apologize to everyone for not posting anything since November 22nd.  I want to be honest and disclose that things got a bit rough there for me for a short while.  With the heavy teaching load (7 classes and 320 students) along with trying to get the American Studies Center up and running, I really didn't have much time to write anything.   And, when I did have some time at the end of the day to write, I was simply too exhausted to do it.  The other factor was that I was trying to cope with my new surroundings, which has been a little difficult at times.  The culture shock has been more extensive at times than I had anticipated and it has sometimes led to a bit of mild depression.  But, I'm doing well now and thought it would be a good time to update everyone on what has been going on for the last month and a half. 

Maybe I've seen too many movies that mess with chronology (like Pulp Fiction and Memento), but I don't think I will go in order of events.  I want to begin with something that happened just today because nothing like this has happened to me in China since I arrived and this story absolutely must be told before I forget it down the road.  Stacie and I needed to go to the local market to buy some food for the next couple of days. We had Evelynn and Lucy with us since they wanted to spend some money they got from Grandma and Grandpa Stein for Christmas.  They had been saving up to buy new winter coats and they both bought ones they absolutely adore.  After we went coat shopping, we were wandering around the market looking for some new wool socks for Stacie and a winter hat for Nicolas (he left his other one at a restaurant too far from home to retrieve it).  As we were shopping, I noticed that this lady kept following us.  She walked right up to the children and looked directly at their faces from just a foot or two away.  Her behavior up to this point isn't too strange for the Chinese, but it became even more odd after she had been following us for about 10 minutes and seemed to go wherever we went within the store. This aisle, that aisle, left, right.  It didn't matter.  I told Stacie, "Hey, something is wrong with this lady," but Stacie is used to people giving us unwanted attention, so she didn't think anything of it.  But, I knew something was wrong.  I said, "Let's go checkout right now." 

So, we went to the checkout line and waited.  In China, the checkers are really slow, so we sat there for several minutes while this lady continued to hover over us.  She was eating these hazelnuts and she would give us dirty looks while throwing the nutshells into our basket.  Then, she started throwing the nutshells into Lucy and Evelynn's hair.  I was starting to feel VERY threatened, but still didn't want to make a big scene. So, I created a wall between myself and the children (who thankfully knew nothing of what was going on by the way).  Then, she went around me and started to bother Stacie.  She threw some nutshells at Stacie and Stacie yelled "Stop it" really loudly.  Stacie knows how to say "stop" in Chinese, but she was too mad to care.  Conversely, the crazy lady wasn't speaking at all.  Everything she was doing was just communicated nonverbally.  We continued to move through the line and try to ignore the lady without creating a confrontation, but she started pelting me in the back of my head with hazelnuts.  I'm thinking, "What the heck are you doing, lady?  Do you not know I could kill you with one American sized punch to the throat?" She continued to pester us. 

I looked over at some other Chinese people nearby and they were watching, but were obviously not sure what to do.  It kind of reminded me of this YouTube video I saw a while back where a guy got run over by a car in the streets of Beijing and a hundred people just stand there and watch curiously. Fortunately, a Chinese man about 30 years old in the other line saw what was going on and told the lady to stop what she was doing.  She did not stop.  The man looked at me again and pointed to his head to indicate that the lady was mentally ill.  By this point, that was already quite obvious.  He saw that she was not stopping her harassment of us and motioned to a security guard to help us.  When the crazy lady saw the situation was escalating, she exited the store, but the security guard knew who was causing the trouble and followed her out.  As we left the market and started walking home, we wondered if she would be waiting for us outside, but we never saw her again.  I hope we never do.  We generally feel safe in China and people are mostly kind to us.  It was a little jarring to have this experience and hopefully we don't have many more like it. 

Moving on...in December, when all of my colleagues were posting on Facebook that they had turned in all of their grades and were ready to start the holiday season, I was so jealous.  I still had weeks to go at that point.  Now, it's January 11th and I know everyone at SUU has started the new semester and yet I don't have to teach until February 15th.  So, it's now my turn to to enjoy a much needed break.  And boy do I need it!  The last month of the fall semester at Hunan Normal University was especially brutal for me.  I had to grade 320 Oral English exams and figure out how to input the grades.  It was such tedious work trying to match their student ID numbers to their Pinyin names and then to the simplified Chinese characters.  My Chinese friend who is visiting SUU as a faculty this year offered me some software to help, but it was for a PC computer and wouldn't help with the organizing of the grades, which is where I was really struggling.  I made the mistake of taking attendance by having them sign a sheet each day, but later regretted this decision when I had to try to read the chicken scratches on the page.  You think it's hard to read English names written out poorly.  Try reading some handwritten Chinese characters. It took me about a week just to calculate my grades and submit them even after the exams were already graded.  Not fun at all!  But, I made it.  Once I turned in my grades, I was wondering how the Chinese students would respond to their grades. Would they whine as much as American students do?  Some of the Chinese students scored quite well on their exams, whereas others did poorly.  It was not unlike grading in America in this way.  The big difference in China, though, is that the students never complained about their final grades (at least not to me personally which is all I really care about).  They can complain all they want to each other as long as I don't have to hear about it. 

It was a little stressful trying to finish up my grades and to enjoy Christmas in China, but I think our family managed just fine.  We went to Xiangtan to visit the Parreno family (as we did with Thanksgiving as well).  It was so fun to spend the holidays with them.  They are such wonderful people and we have become quite close friends with them.  Stacie and I are convinced this is one of those friendships that will last a lifetime.  In fact, Manolo and Jackie are expecting their third child soon (due date is January 8th so we are already beyond that point).  Jackie was crazy enough to have their second child in China a couple of years ago and is even crazier to do it yet again.  Stacie and Annie will be going to Xiangtan the day after tomorrow to help with the Parreno children while Jackie is in the hospital.  So, it's just me and the other four kids in Changsha for a few days.  Anyway, for Christmas we opened presents from Santa on Christmas morning, watched Christmas movies every night, and cooked a turkey in a toaster oven.  It was sublime.  I was told by Manolo that the Chinese don't believe the turkey is actually a turkey.  They believe it's just a giant chicken that has been overfed.  When he tried to explain that it's, in fact, a totally different bird, they just laugh at him.  The most interesting thing we did at Christmas was a series of parties the Parrenos threw for different groups of Chinese children.  They organized three parties and invited 8 children to each party.  They decked their whole apartment in trees, lights, deer, snowmen, wreaths, and many other items.  It was quite lovely.  When the children arrived, they got to help decorate Christmas trees, frost cookies, sing Christmas songs, and get a visit from Santa (any guesses who got to play Santa?).  We did this hour and a half long party three times and it was really fun to see these children experience a real Christmas.  In China, Christmas is nothing more than a big shopping day.  You see pictures of Santa Claus in store windows, but the holiday doesn't mean anything at all to the Chinese.  After all, such a small percentage of people in China are Christians.  The majority religions are atheism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.   We all had a great time celebrating this very special holiday in China. We missed our families a great deal at this time and were very homesick and felt blessed to have such a wonderful Christmas so far away from home.

When we returned home from Xiangtan, I finished my grading and began preparations for the grand opening of the American Studies Center at HNU.  My colleague Kurt Harris (Director of Global Engagement at SUU), myself, Jay Sorensen (SUU student), and Ethan Gali (also an SUU student) have worked very hard to organize activities for the fall semester, to get the center furnished and ready for daily operation, and to prepare for the grand opening.  In the fall alone, we taught the Chinese students how to play baseball and football, welcomed Dr. Sun from SUU to give a lecture on American composers, taught the students about Thanksgiving traditions and served them pie with whipped cream, decorated the American Studies Center for Christmas, visited the local Changsha orphanage with gifts and supplies, and decorated gingerbread cookies for Christmas.  We also had the new office painted, furnished, and set up with a computer, printer, and office supplies.  It was quite an extensive undertaking.  Finally, just a few days ago, a delegation came from SUU (with our Provost Brad Cook, Kurt Harris, and Earl Mulderink) to join with HNU administrators for a formal ribbon tying ceremony to commence the opening of the center.  As part of the opening, we all gave speeches about the center and it's purpose in bringing our two cultures together.  I was flattered to receive big cheers from the students when I was introduced as Dr. Stein (they always pronounce it "stain").  I guess all those A's I gave out paid off because now I'm the popular teacher I suppose.  Actually, they don't even know what an "A" is.  When I told the students in my classes about the American grading system, they were particularly critical about the fact that we skip the letter "E" when we go straight from "D" to "F."  They thought this made no sense at all.  Anyway, I got to speak to the audience about some of the activities we had been doing in the fall and to try to promote the upcoming spring activities.  I was impressed with the size of the crowd at the ceremony, but later found out the students were forced to attend by some of their teachers (not unlike America either).  I only found out that the students were coerced into coming when we had an open house to tour the center between the ribbon tying and Dr. Mulderink's guest lecture.  We intended the tour of the office to be kind of a break time between these two parts of the ceremony and we had cookies and soda prepared for the guests.  However, none of the students would leave their seats because they were worried about getting into trouble with their teachers.  So, we only served cookies to a few dignitaries and I ended up taking about 200 cookies home to Stacie and the kids.  They didn't seem to mind at all.

Well, this blog is already long enough.  At this point, I'm hoping that the rest from school will help me to cope even better with life in China.  The last 5 months have been challenging and rewarding at the same time.  The people here have a goodness about them that is hard to describe, but they think much differently than we do in America.  You just know you are in a different place when you see T-shirts that say things like "Freedom leads to violence" or "freedom is anarchy."  Or, if a student comes up to me and says, "Why do you believe that citizens should be able to say anything they want about their government?  Don't you think they should be stopped?"  These comments lead to lengthy discussions that are probably helpful in generating some understanding between us, but it reminds me we are not in Kansas anymore (for the record, I hate Kansas). 

We get invited to do many day outings with the Tang Family and one of our favorites was to drive outside of the main area of Changsha to a local farm where we got to pick carrots, turnips, cabbages, and some red hot peppers.  The kids had a blast!

We went home with so many vegetables.  We were stocked for a week or two I think.

Stacie made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and gave them to this grandma and one of the young children.  Of course they had never had them before and they seemed to really enjoy them. 

Jeanie was having a great time playing with the Chinese children.  She kept jumping off of this ledge here once some of the boys showed her how it was done. 

This picture shows the Chinese students taking a xiuxi (rest) during the day in front of the school library.  Most Chinese take a rest between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day.  They would rather start the day early and end it late than to have a short lunch.  Americans would rather have a 30 minute lunch and go home at 4:30 p.m. I think.
I'm glad I finally got a picture of this.  This is how the mail often works in China.  I know sometimes things get delivered directly (such as my packages to the International Building--don't worry family, they do arrive safely).  But, often these mail carriers just set up all the packages on the sidewalk and students have to come pick them up here.

Hanging out with the Parrenos.  Little Manolo (we call him Manolito) just loves Stacie!  Here, she is reading a book to him.  This is the kid that speaks three languages and he compartmentalizes people by language.  One time, I said something to him in Chinese and he said, "No," meaning I have to speak English.  His dad speaks English to him and his mom speaks Spanish to him.  Then, he learns Chinese from the locals.
Here we are at Thanksgiving.  We had pork tenderloin (made by Jackie), cole slaw (also Jackie), mashed potatoes (made by me), pumpkin pie (made by Stacie), and Cheesecake (made by Angela at the bottom right).
It was hard to say goodbye to Jay and Katie Sorensen, who left on December 5th.  We had a nice goodbye dinner for them before they left at a steakhouse. 
For months, we toted plastic forks to the restaurant for Lucy and Evelynn.  Guess what?  We don't need to do that anymore.  They've got it down!
Christmas morning in Xiangtan.
One of our favorite parts of China is the constant mistakes on t-shirts.  First, I'm not sure why New York and Massachusetts are on the same shirt.  Did they just randomly choose two states and, if so, why is New York more important than Massachusetts.  And second, Masachnatts????

It's so cold here that everyone has to wear Chinese style quilted pajamas when they are in their houses.  I had to order mine special online and they were 5XL.  The Chinese are so tiny here.  In America, I wear a 2XL.  When I try 2XL on in the Chinese stores, I can barely get it over one arm (or leg).  I know the sizes are different, but it hurts my self-esteem to have ballooned 3 whole sizes since coming to China.
This is what we did for our New Years Eve party.  Decorated gingerbread cookies and watched movies.  It's a Stein family tradition to watch movies on this night.  Side note--Stacie's mom sent us these packets of gingerbread cookies.  I don't want Kurt Harris thinking I stole some of the gingerbread he sent for an ASC activity.  Just thought I would clarify that.
All of the important SUU and HNU administrators and faculty who are in some way affiliated with the ASC.  Obviously, some worked harder than others.  You know how PR photo opportunities go, right?

I love that Brad Cook and Kurt Harris are important enough people for the Chinese to show them a good time.  Since I followed them around for three straight days, I got to join them on some of their itinerary activities, such as this delightful foot massage.
Provost Cook, Dr. Harris, Dr. Mulderink, and Dr. Stein.  Like 4 peas in a pod.  Here we are at the favorite restaurant of all foreign students, particularly SUU students, and the Stein family of course.  When I told our Chinese hosts that the provost wanted to see where his SUU students were eating, she thought I was crazy.  He toured the foreign student dorm and went to eat at Liu Jie's (Miss Liu's).  They said it was some of the best food they had on this trip, although the expression on the provost's face doesn't look to pleased.

Santa Claus is comin' to town!  Who else can say they played Santa for 24 Chinese kids!?  What a great memory I will always have of this very special kind of Christmas.