Friday, June 6, 2014

Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, Goddess of Mercy, and Reflection on Time in China

It's been a while since I last blogged, but let me share with you some of our recent experiences.  We had a really fun Easter and the kids decorated small baskets for the Easter bunny.  Evelynn and Lucy kept asking if the Easter bunny would come to China.  I explained that I was fairly certain he would be coming to China.  They then said, "Isn't the Easter bunny a girl?"  I told them no and that he looked a lot like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.  Stacie says I use too much humor that goes way over their heads, but I'm doing it to amuse myself, not them.  We ended up having three different Easter parties.  The first was done through the American Studies Center.  We invited students from HNU and other members of the community and their children to dye Easter eggs and to do an Easter egg hunt.  Our egg hunt got rained out and we had to do it indoors, but it was still fun.  The better Easter egg party was done at a local park called Wang Ling near our apartment.  All of the small children from Annie's class and their families got together to dye eggs and again to have an egg hunt.  It was really fun.  There's not much to say about it as it was very much like something we would do in America, except with Chinese people everywhere.  I've posted some pictures of it below. We also went down to the Parreno's house in Xiangtan and did an Easter egg hunt with them.  It was really a nice visit because spring was in the air and there were these beautiful pink blossoms on many of the trees.  After such a freezing winter, we have all been very happy to see so much vegetation coming back.

We also had the opportunity to travel to another city in Hunan province called Loudi.  It is the hometown of a former student of mine, Xue Fang (Alice), who I recruited two years ago to come to SUU.  For some reason, she felt so grateful for me "making her dream come true" to go to study in America and wanted to repay our family somehow.  We really tried to be her family and help her feel comfortable when she was at SUU and she REALLY wanted us to go to Loudi to meet her family so they could show us some things in their area.  To be honest, it is sometimes hard to travel on these smaller excursions with all the children and they get really tired, but we try to be strong because these opportunities will not come again.  Although we had some reservations about traveling to Loudi (which we really knew nothing about other than that Alice's family lived there), we ended up having such a wonderful time.  It was a beautiful city that was very clean by Chinese standards and not as crowded as other places we have been.  Also, being in the heart of Hunan province, it was very green and lush.  We were surprised and very impressed.

The train ride to Loudi was about 2 hours and Lucy and Evelynn were thrilled to take the slow train.  They were really disappointed when we took the high speed train to Beijing and then the slow train from Beijing to the Great Wall was set up like airplane or bus seating.  They wanted to ride on the slow train that has the bunk beds stacked up and they jam huge crowds of people into them.  In essence, they wanted the REAL Chinese train experience. Well, they got their wish.  We ended up riding the whole way to Loudi on these bunks and we all faced each other and talked.  Alice brought some duck meat that we snacked on and it was super spicy, but delicious.

When we got to Loudi, we were greeted by Alice's parents and they were immediately super sweet and hospitable.  They drove us to our hotel and we discovered that it was more expensive than we thought and they paid the difference.  Then, Alice's dad picked up a giant suitcase we packed for the whole family (very heavy) and he would not let me help him at all.  They were so concerned about how comfortable we were.  The rooms were very nice and spacious and we were very comfortable.  We did so many things while we were in Loudi that it's hard to list them all, but let me give you some highlights.  The most extravagant thing we did was took a paid tour from the city of Loudi to this incredible cave system.  The bus ride there was so fun because the entire tour was booked out by Alice's dad, who brought all of his friends and their family.  So, everyone was comfortable with each other.  The tour guide wanted us to entertain the guests by singing.  I'm sure my face exhibited complete shock when the tour guide wanted me to sing an American song to the passengers.  I think Stacie jumped in and helped me because I was struggling, but we managed to belt out Jingle Bells.  They loved it, cracking voices and all!

Once we arrived at the cave, we had to take a boat to get inside and then we could walk once we were inside.  The cave is said to have like a thousand buddha faces inside.  We saw many that were man-made and others were apparently "natural."  It kind of reminded me of the people seeing mother Mary's face in the grilled cheese sandwich.  If you look hard enough, you can see anything.  Alice kept telling me that this rock or that rock had Buddha's face in it.  I kept saying, "I don't see it" or "I think that's a bit of a stretch."  I know Alice pretty well now and feel comfortable telling her what I think, but I think Stacie might have thought I should just humor her.  It was a pretty impressive cave system with many unique and beautiful rock formations.  Sometimes the ceiling would drop very low and I would walk hunched over for hundreds of yards at a time.  That was a bit of challenge.  After the cave, we went to this enormous statue of the Goddess of Mercy.  As soon as we got out of the car, we all said "Wow, look at that huge statue!"  In the beginning, we had no idea where they were even taking us or that this statue even existed.  I had never heard of it before.  You can see from some of my pictures how spectacular it is.  Alice's parents told us that it hasn't been open to the public for more than a couple of years, so it's still new and not crowded.  I even tried to look up some information on it when I got home to our apartment and there wasn't much about it.  We felt privileged to be able to see it.  We had to climb hundreds of stairs to get to the top.  Once we were up there, we relaxed for a while and Nicolas did a wushu (kung fu) demonstration for all the other people at the top.  I thought it was very social of him and they loved his performance.  He had people clapping and congratulating him on having such good skills for a foreigner.  The view from the top was amazing.  There is a giant pond below the statue and we did not realize until we got to the top that the pond is in the shape of a giant lotus flower.  We've seen some beautiful things in China (especially with Zhangjiajie), but this view from the mountains outside of Loudi was some of the most stunning scenery we have witnessed.

We also did some other really unique and fun things.  We went to a 5D movie, which might be a little unfamiliar to you.  They also have 7D movies here.  If you have ever been on the Star Tours ride at Disneyland, you know something about how this works.  They put you in some seats that move mechanically with the motions on the screen.  During one movie scene where we flew over a volcano, we could smell something burning and when we went through a blizzard, they would blow snow out the ceiling at us.  The children absolutely loved it.  We also rented four seat bicycles and rode up and down the main river in Loudi.  We also had some quiet and more intimate moments with Alice's family.  They are such good people.  Alice's mom was very affectionate with the little girls and would hold Evelynn's hand as we walked various places.  Alice's dad would perform magic tricks for the boys.  And, Alice' grandparents invited us over for some delicious food at their house.  In short, we are so glad we went.

In terms of work and school, things have been much smoother this semester for me.  They dropped my course load down to a reasonable 3 classes (120 students) as opposed to the 7 classes (350 students) last semester.  I could totally handle it and manage my ASC responsibilities.  My student assistant, Karisa Rosander, has been amazing and all I really need to do this semester is be helpful at various activities and address any concerns that the higher ups might have about what we are trying to accomplish.  The highlight of the semester at the ASC in my opinion was a mother's day event that we held where we invited a Chinese mother and an American mother to speak to HNU students and members of the community about cultural differences in attitudes about motherhood.  Stacie and her dear friend, Lily, were outstanding.  I was so proud of Stacie for how much confidence she exhibited in talking to these young students about the importance of families and how much joy she gets from mothering our children.  At one point, a girl said "I'm afraid to have a baby because it's so painful and my body will change" or something like that.  Stacie looked right at her and said: "Let me tell you something...motherhood is NOT a disease!"  She said it with so much passion I was really proud of her.  She explained to these girls that they should not worry about the potential difficulties of pregnancy and that in the end it was all worth it.   I recorded the entire presentation and plan to transcribe it for our children. They did not attend the event because we wanted Stacie to be able to focus on her speech and the children would be absolutely bombarded at an activity like this. Unfortunately, the American Studies Center has persuaded some schlup from America to be the Father's Day speaker this month.  Any guesses who that might be?

I know this is a long blog already, but since we are winding down and I'm not sure I will have time to write another blog, I want to reflect a little on our overall experience here.    We have had a wonderful time overall in China, but our life here as been fraught with many difficulties as well.  I think it would be challenging for a single individual to adapt to a new culture, but it magnifies the challenge when you bring young children into the equation.   We were surprised to find that our children adapted much easier to their surroundings than we thought they would.  Now that we are in our last 3 weeks here of a ten month journey, we often reflect about what we have learned here.  First, we feel that we have experienced a level of kindness here that we have not seen before in America. There has been an outpouring of love and hospitality toward our family that truly makes us want to be better people when we return to the U.S.  We have also learned that there are specific nuances within American culture that we never think about that guide how we behave, how we make decisions, and how we communicate with others. I brought this unique set of assumptions about the world with me when I came to China and some of these attitudes clearly did not jive with the people in China.  I was initially surprised at how rude and inflexible the Chinese were in negotiating certain aspects of my job here, but over time I realized that I needed to adjust my thinking to accommodate a different worldview.  Now, I find the experience of communicating with the Chinese to be only slightly aggravating rather than completely paralyzing (joking a little obviously).  When I asked Stacie about her experience in China overall, she simply said she was "really glad she came" and that "she grew so much from the experience."  We often discussed certain metaphors in our family to help us cope with the challenges.  We describe our time in China as sort of like panning for gold.  You have to scoop up a great deal of seemingly useless dirt and mud to start extracting the gold flakes.  At times, it seemed our experience was all dirt and mud (such as freezing to death in our apartment with uninsulated walls  and trying to cook in our kitchen with a single hot plate), but then we would see these great aspects of Chinese culture that will forever change us.  We've seen the natural beauty of the physical surroundings here (Zhangjiajie--the inspiration for the film Avatar), learned to speak Mandarin very poorly, visited historic sites like the Great Wall, and spent time with real Chinese families and friends.  As a homeschooling family back in the U.S., we could not think of a better way to teach our children about their place in the world and how they can impact others in positive ways.

I also think my perspective on the world has actually broadened in a variety of ways. I now realize that there are some absolutely beautiful things about American and Chinese cultures, but also some less desirable things about each culture.  The Chinese have security and safety, but less personal freedom than Americans.  Americans have a great deal of freedom, but sometimes abuse that freedom.  Our family is squarely in the camp that chooses freedom in spite of its limitations, but it has been fascinating to live amongst a people that are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.  We knew once we started hearing Chinese people compare the tyrant and architect of the Chinese cultural revolution, Mao Zedong, to George Washington that we were clearly not on the same page politically or culturally.  We also discovered that the Chinese lead a much more simple life and I believe the simplicity can sometimes lead to greater happiness.  However, it's also difficult to live in a country that doesn't have the conveniences that we were used to back home.  The lessons we learned from this are: 1) We freely admit that we can't wait to go back home to have some of those conveniences; and 2) We could do with a lot less in our life and still be happy. It's an interesting sort of contradiction. The experience also refined my personal perspective on life and what is important. There is an incessant need in Chinese culture to be as successful as possible and this usually means monetarily.  I think it comes from most families having only one child and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the one child to earn enough money to take care of his/her parents and also grandparents.  Seeing this really solidified my previous outlook that our relationships with others (particularly our family) is the most important thing and that success is a means of cultivating some happiness, but is not paramount when it detracts from other life pursuits.

I think I've also changed a great deal as a teacher too because China has such a drastically different educational system, it has really forced me out of my comfort zone.   The style of teaching and learning are completely different from America.  The Chinese teachers stand at the front of the room and talk (well I guess some teachers still do this in America) and the students simply listen.  There is typically very little, if any, participation from the students.  They will not raise their hands to ask questions and a class "discussion" is a really painful endeavor to try to instigate.  My teaching style in America consists of lecture, discussion, and many examples to illustrate key concepts. I try to make it an engaging environment when I can by bringing in news clips, videos, and popular culture examples to help student make connections.  In China, I tried to do the same thing, but was met with abysmal failure in the beginning.  I could not get the students to laugh at any of my jokes, discussions were painfully one-sided, and students had little interest in applying any of their new knowledge (they just want to memorize and regurgitate for the exam).  However, over time, the students warmed to my unorthodox and very foreign teaching style and would eventually speak up, albeit somewhat reluctantly, in class.  We ended up meeting in the middle and they learned some things about not only my discipline of Communication, but about alternative styles of learning.  And, consequently, I learned how to be a better teacher by realizing not all my students are alike even back home and that I need to be a bit more flexible in my approach to education. 

Today is Annie's last day of teaching her class and last day of tutoring her Chinese friend.  I finish my oral examinations on Monday and then will take about a week to grade them.  But, it's still a very busy month.  Our family is taking one last trip to Feng Huang (an ancient Chinese city) next week for 3 days.  Then, I go to an academic conference in Shenzhen (near Hong Kong) the week after that.  Once I return home to Changsha, I will conduct a few focus groups with Chinese students for a research project I'm working on and then we come home to America.  Everyone is a little anxious to return.   We are still having fun here, but it's hard not to think about our life back in America after being here for 9 1/2 month.  We only have 18 days to go, which seems crazy soon. 



They have grown a lot, but still no match for the strength of dad.
Lucy still not cooperating with pictures.
I'm always trying to convince these half Spanish half Ecuadorian children that America is the best country in the world.  Seems to be working.  Check at that flag she is waving.
Steins and Parrenos at Taozi Lake.
Lucy just loves Karisa and will follow her anywhere.

Newspaper clipping of first trip on the Changsha subway line.  They let all foreigners ride as a special promotion before the official grand opening.
Who invited the press?  Why are we such a big deal everywhere we go?

Decorating baskets for the Easter bunny.
The face says it all.

Annie teaching these children how to dye Easter eggs.

This guy in the middle is a total stranger.  He's just curious about what we are doing with these eggs.

Yep, we didn't invite them either.  Welcome to the party, pal.

Obstacle course at Wang Ling park is no problem for me even at 39 years old.

Stacie's first time trying stinky tofu.

Nicolas' first time trying stinky tofu.

Evelynn's first time trying stinky tofu.

Lucy refusing to try stinky tofu.

Cooking vegetables in a stone pot covered with foil.

Our makeshift ping pong table.

China is so second nature now.  Here we are in the train station waiting to go to Loudi.

Alice needed to take us to Loudi during the May Grave Sweeping holiday (like our Memorial Day) because she has school.  It was super crowded in the train station.

Here are the bunks on the slow train.

I nibbled a little on this turtle foot, but I kept hearing my cousin Lisa's voice in my heading saying, "How could you, Kevin?!" so I stopped. 

Nicolas eating squid in Loudi.

I love this picture.  It reminds me of the movie Reservoir Dogs.  If you haven't seen it, there is no hope for you.

Riding bicycles down by the river in Loudi.

The Chinese are very superstitious about the number 4.  Everywhere there would be a 4, they just put "f" for "four."

Beautiful spread of food at Alice's grandparent's house.  Wow!

Another picture with the grandparents.  Such sweet and kind people!

Well, if I forgot my underwear, I know my fancy hotel has me "covered."

We always run our kids around so much on these trips that by the end of the day they are wiped out.

View of the lotus-shaped pond from the top of the mountain near the Goddess of Mercy statue.

It's apparently good luck to rub Buddha's belly.

One goddess next to me and one behind me.

This Buddhist temple has like a thousand of these gold Buddha's.  Apparently, Chairman Mao with his supernatural powers (according to the Chinese) was able to determine which single one of these statues was real gold and the rest are fake.  Stacie must also have supernatural powers because she simply said, "I bet it's the one behind the glass."  It WAS.

Here, we are learning a little about the Buddhist temple.  People are inside praying, so it seems like it would be inappropriate to take pictures, but I did get permission in case you thought I was a total dunce.

Beautiful view of the Goddess of Mercy from the Lotus pond.

I'm not sure what Nicolas did to irritate this Chinese soldier.

The entrance to the cave about 2 hours from Loudi.

The Xue Family.  We have never received so much hospitality in our lives.

Two years ago, I met Alice when I came to HNU to teach for a month.  I recruited her to come to SUU where she came for a year and we got to see her there too.  Now, we are here in her home town.  It's nice to have good friends in China and America.
Ezra has an infected tooth and will need a root canal.  This picture is at our second visit to the Chinese dentist.  The first two trips were a little drilling and some treatment of an infection.  Then, next Friday they will do the root canal.  I hope they know what they are doing.  I have a little mistrust of Chinese medicine since nothing they have done for us all year has helped even a bit.  If it works, though, all three treatments cost 1000 RMB (about $150).  Pretty cheap for a root canal, right?  But, expensive if it doesn't work at all.  Poor Ezra! The picture above is Ezra holding the anesthetic that we had to purchase separately and bring to the dentist.  When they first started drilling without it, I was like "What the heck do you think you're doing?"  I had my friend who was translating tell them never again to drill without numbing.  They were like, "Well, if we want to be pampered, you'll have to pay extra for that!"  So, here is Ezra with his well worth it bottle of anesthetic for 40 RMB ($6.50).
I snapped this photo outside the window of a bus.  I just had to capture one of the hundreds of ladies riding around on scooters in their dresses and high heels.  A very frequent sight here in Changsha.
We see a lot of strange things in China.  This guys is headed to the market to sell his eels and he's just chillin' on the bus next to me.  Freaky.
I know public speaking and this one was awesome.

During the holidays, the trains are so crowded in China.  These guys don't have a seat so they have to stand for hours.



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