Monday, July 30, 2007

More from the White Swan

We’re about an hour away from late check-out, and three hours away from saying goodbye to the White Swan, and six hours away from saying goodbye to China. It’s hard to believe that we started our Xiamen Adventure just 157 days ago and it is about to end. The White Swan and Shamian Island are a pleasant end-note, so calm compared to most of the rest of China. We’ve had a lovely 19th story room with a fantastic view of the Pearl River and the Guangzhou skyline.
Our last day has been a lazy one. We stayed up late last night and slept late this morning. It was almost 10 a.m. before we even left the room, and we only made it as far as the Swan Room. The girls played and I sat on the red couch and read. A little before lunch time we sallied forth for some shopping, and then headed to Cow and Bridge, a wonderful Thai restaurant. The girls especially liked their special lemonades, complete with flowers.

We came back to the hotel after lunch, and have been resting in our room. I’m about to repack our one open suitcase – should be a challenge with the extra shopping we’ve done! We really haven’t bought much, but we don’t have much room to spare in our luggage.

We’ll check out at 4, and spend a few hours in the playroom, grab a quick dinner at the White Swan deli, and catch the 6 p.m. shuttle to the airport. Our flight leaves at 9 p.m., and in the words of the old travelogue newsreels, we’ll say goodbye to China, land of contrast and adventure!

Next you hear from us, we’ll be back in the U.S.A.!

We're at the White Swan

We made it to Guangzhou! The first leg of our homeward journey is complete.

I woke up at the crack of dawn this morning; actually, I'm not sure I slept at all! My mind was full of all the final details of getting moved out. The girls got up around 7, but were too excited to eat much breakfast. We ended up heading downstairs at 8:45 for our 12:10 p.m. flight! I wanted to give us plenty of time to convince the porters-who-do-not-port to carry down our luggage. I also expected to have to go get a taxi at South Gate to come to the guesthouse to get our luggage. Instead, the head housekeeper ran to get the taxi. We managed to stuff our huge suitcases into one cab by putting the smaller bags in the rear window and one of the large bags on the back seat. The girls were then squished into a corner of the backseat with their backpacks, and I rode in the front seat with mine. It was actually easier than I thought it would be!

This time at the airport I managed NOT to trip over the curb -- it probably helped that Zoe kept reminding me to be careful! When we checked in our bags, we were overweight, which surprised me not. I have no idea if we were overweight when we flew from Guangzhou to Xiamen back in February since we flew with 5 Xiada professors who had attended the Fulbright orientation and the airline averages the weight among many travelers traveling together. We were 23 kilos overweight this time, which cost us a whopping 230 yuan ($30). It cost me almost $100 when I was 6 pounds overweight on the American flight from DFW to LAX. I'm not looking forward to checking in for that leg of the trip -- I doubt that our luggage will get any lighter while we're here!

We were so early for the flight that the girls had time to play in the ball pit at Xiamen Airport again. They had a blast, and I got to sit and recover from a busy morning. Whew!

The girls can easily manage their rolling carry-ons and backpacks in the airport. And they can easily manage them when going from the airport to the airplane on a jetway. But riding a bus and going up a metal staircase -- not so much! Zoe handled it like a trouper, and I ended up putting Maya's backpack in my roller and carrying her roller together with mine. A kindly traveler ended up helping Zoe with her luggage on the stairs -- the same man who bullied two women to scoot over in their seats on the bus so Zoe and Maya could sit down!

Our plane sat on the runway for an hour waiting for permission to take off -- I'm not sure what the problem was. But of course the pilot wouldn't turn the airconditioning on. People were complaining left and right (even without understanding Chinese I knew what they were complaining about!). The flight attendants started passing around glasses of water with actual ICE CUBES in them! I've never seen such a thing in China! Usually they're foisting glasses of boiling water or tea at you, insisting that drinking hot drinks make you feel cooler. Hah!

I keep forgetting how big the new Guangzhou Airport is -- we walked a mile to get our luggage! We had no trouble retreiving our bags and getting a cab to the White Swan, though the security guys in charge of the taxi stand kept saying the bags wouldn't fit and it would cost 300 yuan for a taxi to take that many bags. I kept pointing to the sign near the stand that says clearly in English that a cabbie can't refuse a fare and can't negotiate for an off-meter price. Sure enough, all the bags fit in one cab and the meter put it at just under 100 yuan to the White Swan. We checked in just in time to see a group of adoptive parents with their newly-adopted Chinese babies all gussied up for their "red couch photo!" (For the uninitiated, it's a tradition in Chinese adoption to have a photo taken of all the babies on a certain red couch at the White Swan). Zoe kept asking why they were all dressed up, and Maya kept cooing, "They're so cuuuuuute!"

We did a little shopping this afternoon, and then hit the Swan Room, the play room in the White Swan for the benefit of all the adoptive families staying there. We played there in February when we were in Guangzhou for orientation, and the girls were panting to play there again (that's where Maya is in the picture above). We then went to Lucy's, a nearby restaurant beloved of adoptive families, for dinner. The girls had a bath and I'm about to do the same -- the White Swan bathtubs are soooo deep and I remember taking a bath in them at each adoption trip and finally feeling clean after a week's worth of the world's quickest showers (new mothers know what I'm talking about!).

We've arranged for late checkout since our flight doesn't leave until late. So tomorrow we'll enjoy the parks and statues on Shamian Island, do a little shopping, play a lot in the Swan Room, and then head for the airport for the next-to-last leg of the trip home.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Last Days in Xiamen

We’ve been busy, busy, busy since returning from Xi’an. I’m really glad we went, but it has made the last few days of getting ready to leave completely crazy. We’ve had to pack up all the things we’re leaving behind (the stuff that was here when we got here, plus everything we bought to make our stay more comfortable but are too big to take home) AND the things we’re taking with us. And we’ve been saying goodbye to friends.

Friday evening Chen Xing (Maya’s classmate) and her family came over to bring us some gifts, and to take away some of the things we didn’t want to take home – some clothes Zoe has outgrown, some toys, all of the English-language workbooks we brought and didn’t use (!). They were also nice enough to take foodstuffs – bottles of soy sauce, oyster sauce, garlic juice, sesame oil – that we couldn’t take home. I hate waste, so I’m glad they said they could use it.

Before we left for Xi’an I got a call from one of the parents in Zoe’s class. She said all the parents wanted to thank me for the English lessons and for putting together the English teaching materials to send home with the kids for the summer. They wanted to take us out to dinner Saturday night. I said that would be lovely.

Little did I know that it was going to be a HUGE party, with all 3 teachers and about 12 families in attendance! (The picture above is from the end of the evening and we’d lost some folks by then; the grownups are the three teachers). I think, though, that we were just an excuse for a party. Or maybe it was a little guanxi. Guanxi translates literally as “relationships,” but in China it’s often about doing favors and returning favors. The Chinese business world is built on guanxi, providing gifts and favors for business associates, government officials, those you hope to do business with. You’ll often hear Chinese people use the English expression, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” to explain guanxi. It’s not quite bribery, but it sometimes looks mighty close! I detected a little sense that the parents felt they owed me payback. But who cares? It was fun, and the girls had a great time!

We were picked up by one of the families and taken to a hotel with a huge buffet restaurant. The girls ate practically everything in sight, though they refused to eat a Xiamen specialty – seaworms in gelatin. Because our hostess insisted, believe it or not I ate it! Thank goodness it’s eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, so I couldn’t taste a thing beyond hot, hot, hot. And I didn't actually chew, so the gelatin just kind of slithered down my throat! Remember that old childhood retort, “Eat worms and die!”? Well, now I can say I ate worms and lived to tell about it.
Zoe much preferred the ice cream (can you blame her?).

Maya didn’t care what she ate, she just liked playing and being the pet of all the older kids and grownups.
I admit I had more fun hanging out with the kids than with the grownups – they are easier to talk to when you don’t speak the same language!
I think I’ve mentioned (brag, brag, brag!) that Zoe won a speech contest at Chinese School in Fort Worth for reciting a poem. Well, I’ve been trying to get her to say it to ANYONE here in China and she has adamantly refused. FINALLY, to my amazement, she agreed to say it to her teachers!
The teachers were amazed – they pulled over one of the English-speaking moms to translate their praise. They said she barely spoke a word at school, and they had no idea she knew any Chinese. They also said her pronouciation was excellent, that she got the tones right and everything. (But remember the rest of the story about the speech contest? I asked Zoe what the poem meant and she said, “I don’t know, it was in Chinese!” I’m still not sure she has a clue what she said!) Zoe was pretty proud of herself, and I sure was, too.

Today we went to my office to pack up everything there – not too much since I’m leaving all the books. Walking back to the apartment we stopped at the store to buy “special snacks” for the long plane ride. Mostly we wanted to cash in all of the coins the girls have been collecting in their piggy banks. I was amazed at how much they had – 52 yuan, mostly in 1-jiao coins (10 jiao = 1 yuan)! You can buy a lot of snacks with that!

As we walked home, the girls had a great time saying goodbye to everything – “goodbye, school; goodbye, basketball court; goodbye butterfly leaves; goodbye, beach. . .” you get the idea. Before long, though, the litany of goodbyes degenerated into “goodbye, stinky trash can; goodbye, beggars; goodbye, crazy drivers; goodbye rude people (that would be folks who cut in line, stare at us, pick their noses, etc.!).” Obviously they have their own list of “what I won’t miss about China!”) And just like my list, it’s a way to make themselves feel better about leaving.

Because we have had a wonderful time here. When you ask the girls whether they are happy to be going home, they’ll definitely say yes. But when you ask them if they’d like to come back to China, they say yes, too. And I admit I’m in full agreement – it will be wonderful to get home, and we’ll definitely be back!

Tomorrow morning at 9:00 we head to the airport with our nine pieces of luggage (3 suitcases, 3 carry-ons, 3 backpacks), first stop Guangzhou. We’ll spend the night at the White Swan Hotel, and then take the China Southern night flight, leaving 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 31. We arrive at LAX around 7 p.m. the same day (the international date line is in our favor on the trip home), but don’t leave there until a little after midnight, making it Wednesday, August 1. We’ll arrive at DFW at 5:15 a.m. (poor Cousin Aaron, who has to come pick us up!). Yippee! We’re almost home now . . . .

Xi'an Part IV: The Noodle Maker

Hi, this is Zoe. This is my first blog post. It's been fun living in China, because there are fun things to see all the time, like statues and frogs and dragonflies and the fish at Nanputuo. I loved watching the noodle maker at the restaurant we went to for lunch after seeing the terracotta warriors (which were cool!). My mom let me take pictures, and I picked out the ones I wanted to post to the blog, and helped my mom edit them, and then I told her what to type.

To make the noodles, first the noodle maker cut the dough and put flour on the counter and the noodles. He rolled the dough on the counter to get the flour, then he put oil and water on it. He kneaded it for about 5 minutes and then started to stretch it. He swung it up in the air and banged it down on the counter with a loud boom, and he did that over and over again.
Then he stretched it until it became really long.

The dough got really long and thin, and got thinner and thinner as he kept stretching it. And then it just broke apart into noodles – he didn’t cut it or anything! He flopped it up in the air to separate the noodles, and rolled the long noodles on his fingers.
He put the noodles in a big pot to cook – that’s why the pictures look so steamy. It’s also steamy because soup was cooking, too.
While the noodles cooked, the noodle maker put soup in little bowls.
By then, the noodles were cooked. He stirred the noodles and fished them out with a big net on a stick.
Finally, he put the noodles in the soup bowls.
People were standing in line to get the noodles. I ate some of the noodles, too, and I thought they were good. They were a little spicy, but I still liked them.

It was really fun to watch the noodle maker and to take pictures so I’ll always remember how noodles are made!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Xi'an Part III: Terracotta Warriors

Sometimes when you’ve been anticipating something for a long time, the reality just doesn’t measure up. NOT SO with the terracotta warriors of Xi’an! They are truly fantastic, actually worthy of the designation “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

We started by seeing a short movie-in-the-round (you stand in the center while the movie shows all around you on a 360-degree screen – very cool!) about the construction of Emperor Qin’s mausoleum and the pits for the terracotta warriors. It seemed that the emperor, reigning around 250 B.C., bankrupted his people with high taxes to pay for it all, and conscripted over 720,000 people to work for him rather than in their own fields with resultant famine and poverty. And what he wasn’t doing to destroy the populace of southern China he was doing in northern China by ordering the construction of the Great Wall. Still, he was a heroic figure in some ways, having joined all the kingdoms of China by defeating all the various warlords warring among themselves. And he managed to keep the kingdom together and repel the Mongolian hordes. But his son was not able to continue the Qin dynasty, being defeated by an uprising of the oppressed peasants. They opened the pits, burned everything in sight, stole the weapons the warriors were carrying, and destroyed many of the statues. Burning the underground structures housing the warriors caused further damage to the statues – they were crushed under the weight of the dirt and wooden beams above them.

The making of the statues must have been quite an undertaking. And I didn’t realize this until now – each statue is inscribed with the name of the craftsman who made it! They’ve identified over 80 different craftsmen. Each statue’s body was made using molds. There were various body types – standing archers, kneeling archers, cavalry soldiers complete with horses (the cavalry soldiers are not seated on the horses because the kilns were not big enough, so they stand beside their horses), infantry soldiers, even high-ranking officers. There were also wooden chariots, now rotted away, manned by more terracotta warriors and pulled by terracotta horses. The detail in the soldiers’ uniforms is incredible, down to the stitching on the soles of the kneeling archers’ shoes and the studs holding together the plates of armor. And it seems that the figures were originally painted quite elaborately, but all traces of color disappear almost as soon as the warriors are unearthed because of oxidation. In fact, the archeologists have decided not to unearth any more warriors until they figure out how to preserve the color. How extraordinary this army must have looked when painted!

The heads were molded, but the faces were not made from molds; each was hand-done and the variety in facial features, hairstyles, head dresses, facial hair and facial expressions is astonishing. The different ethnic minorities in Qin’s empire are represented in those different facial features and hairstyles/head dresses.

The highlight of the museum is the unromantically named “Pit One,” the largest of the pits of excavated soldiers. It is truly enormous, but only represents a fraction of what is believed to be still buried. The warriors were deployed four across in trenches, as you see them here. The earthen walls between them do not contain more soldiers – these were the walls that held up the roof and tons of dirt over the army’s head (the walls were taller then, of course).

What a bizarre and extraordinary undertaking to replicate Emperor Qin’s army so that his soul could continue to rule the kingdom he believed would exist underground after his death. And it wasn’t just the army he recreated in terracotta – they’ve also unearthed pits with statues of acrobats and civil officials. And then there are the birds and animals and stables of horses that were buried alive to populate Qin’s underground kingdom (it seems he liked to hunt, so he made sure to have animals available so he could enjoy this pastime after death). The birds, animals and horses all had terracotta attendants with them. And don’t forget the concubines – the new emperor ordered that those who had no children were to be entombed with the dead Emperor Qin. Also buried alive were thousands of officials and workmen who knew the location of Qin’s tomb, so that they could not reveal that secret.

One of the newest discoveries was bronze chariots and horses, much smaller than the terracotta variety – after all, bronze is more costly than local clay! They are also incredibly detailed, and after the archeologists put together the chariots, they were actually able to move just like the wooden originals would have.
Still, the most amazing things for me were the warriors, rows and rows of them in battle formation, each frozen in time.

Oddly poignant – after all, these are clay figures, not real men – were the broken warriors, some probably beyond repair, others waiting for their turn to be put back together again like so many humpty-dumpties.

At the end of Pit One is what I think of as the “medical ward,” where archeologists are trying to put the warriors back together like jigsaw puzzles. Almost none of the statues were found intact.
Speaking of finding the warriors, most of you probably know that they were rediscovered in 1974 by local farmers digging wells for water. We got to meet one of those farmers – Mr. Yang – who was rewarded for his discovery with the payment of 40 yuan (which he had to share with his collective!). He is now 84 years old, and is no longer an illiterate farmer – he can now sign his name, which is important in his new job. He works in the museum gift shop, selling the official catalog of the terracotta warriors. And he signs each one. Our guide told us that he was a crotchety old fellow who didn’t enjoy his new job much, and that he refused to have his picture taken. Sure enough, when we went to buy the book, there was a sign next to his desk saying “No Photos!” I thought it was pretty funny – there was a couple trying to take his picture by having the woman stand casually with him in the background while the man took a picture. No flies on Mr. Yang, he saw what they were up to and moved his palm fan in front of his face so they couldn’t get a clear shot! Still, he looked us in the eye when he signed the book and smiled at Zoe. So maybe he’s not so crotchety after all!

In between touring the museum, we ate lunch at the museum restaurant. It was OK, but nothing to write home about. Zoe was mesmerized, though, by the noodle-maker, and spent most of the lunch at his counter watching him make the noodles by hand. She took about a million pictures of him at work – I told her she’ll have to write the blog post about that herself. So look for Xi’an Part IV: The Noodle-Maker, coming soon to your local theatre!

The girls were pretty worn out by all the walking – the museum is quite spread out over 5 or so buildings. So as we waited for the rest of our group to gather to leave the museum, they rested in their “houses.”
We spent about 4 hours at the museum, and I don’t think we saw a fraction of what was there. Now I have a new goal – GOING BACK to Xi’an to see more of the terracotta warriors!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Xi'an Part II: The Great Mosque & the Wild Goose Pagoda

We visited two great religions today: Islam and Buddhism. Both came to China from other countries, both came to China very early in its history, and both flourish today. Of course, Buddhism has far outstripped Islam in China. Still, there is a very active Muslim population throughout China.

First we visited a small museum dedicated to “farmer paintings.” These are familiar to me, but I’ve always heard them called peasant paintings. They are brightly colored and usually represent village scenes. Farmer painting is similar, but in the 1950s it flourished in Xi’an as Party propaganda – or as the museum docent told us, the themes were “political.” The paintings would show happy farmers reading Mao’s little red book; even in a painting where there was no overtly political theme, Mao’s little red book could be seen peeking out of a farmer’s breast pocket!

The museum also has traditional Chinese scrolls with Chinese painting and calligraphy. The girls got a chance to try their hands at calligraphy, first learning how to hold the brush.
The teacher told them about the four treasures of Chinese calligraphy – can you identify them in this picture?

They are: 1) the painting brush, 2) rice paper (which is not actually made of rice!), 3) the ink stone (where the ink is mixed), and 4) the ink stick (Chinese ink comes in a stick which is ground into powder and mixed with water to make ink). I love how elaborate things are in China; we have to name these simple instruments "treasures!"

This was also one of the usual “shopping stops” that is included in every tour (tour guides customarily get kickbacks for bringing their groups to these places – some tour companies won’t even pay a salary to their guides, the only money they earn is from these kickbacks and from tips. OCDF does pay a salary, so we’ve not had to do too many of these shopping stops while on their tours). But the opportunity to see the paintings and learn a little about Chinese calligraphy made this one the best disguised “shopping stops” I’ve seen! For most, the “museum” part is so pitiful that they shouldn’t even bother. (The next day we went to a place “to learn about jade,” and they barely tried to pretend it was anything other than an excuse to shop.)
After the museum, we visited the Great Mosque. It was hard to tell that the Great Mosque was actually a mosque, given the very Chinese design of the place. Apparently it was originally an imperial palace, and the Emperor gave permission to use it as a mosque back in the 8th century.

Following through on the Chinese design, even the minaret was a Chinese pagoda!

The prayer hall was recognizably Muslim, with rows of prayer rugs inside. We were not allowed inside, but you can see the Arabic script on this column, and behind the girls are clocks marking the times for the five daily prayers.
There were two old bearded men sitting in front of the prayer hall, and an Arabic-looking woman, with headscarf, and accompanied by a Chinese man came up to the prayer hall. She was speaking English with the man, whom I suppose was a guide or translator. One of the old men asked where she was from, and she said Bahrain. He motioned her to come to the door of the prayer hall, and let her look in. He pointed at something, and proudly said, “Koran.” He seemed pleased to be able to show a “real” Muslim that the Chinese were “real,” too. The mosque is not just an historical site – it is still an active mosque, as you can see by this group of men leaving the mosque after midday prayers.
Muslims in China are ethnically Chinese, having become Muslim from conversion. But it was an Arabic population who came to China and converted them. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of intermarriage, and Chinese Muslims still show traces of that Arabic heritage in their ability to grow beards. We saw more facial hair in one hour in the Muslim quarter than we’ve seen in our 5 months in China! (Of course, having a beard is a religious thing for them, unlike for other Chinese, some of whom can in fact grow facial hair but are likely to shave it.) The Muslims are one of the recognized non-Han minority groups in China, and the one child policy does not apply to them.

After the mosque, we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built over 1,000 years ago.
Does it look to you like the pagoda is leaning? It is, indeed. It seems that overuse of the water table has caused it to sink slightly, though we were told it didn’t as yet pose structural problems. I guess a little wear and tear is to be expected after 1,000 years!

The history of the pagoda is interesting; it was built at the request of a Buddhist monk who spent 15 years traveling in India and collecting holy books of Buddhism there in the 7th century. When he returned, he asked the Emperor to construct the pagoda to house the books. The pagoda is actually built in the style of Indian temples, and is named Wild Goose Pagoda after a pagoda the monk saw in India. What’s really interesting is that the monk wrote his memoir detailing his travels, and that served as the basis for the famous novel, Journey to the West, written in the 1500s. The fictionalized version of the journey is now much more famous than the factual version, and the girls have been watching the TV version for 5 months! They can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about BaJie (the pig), HuGu (the Monkey King, who also goes by many other names), WuJing (the friar), and XuanZang (the monk traveling to collect scriptures). The first three are the monk’s disciples, and are in charge of protecting him from humans and demons during his journey. There’s both a cartoon version and a live action version, and the girls are mesmerized by both of them.

As you can see from the picture of the girls with the happy Buddha, they had a great time wandering around the pagoda grounds and imitating the statues. Above they are happy, and below they are reverent.

And so ends our first day of sight-seeing in Xi’an. Back at the hotel, the four girls played together, had dinner together, and tried out the swimming pool (it’s an indoor pool and so frigid they lasted less than 10 minutes! I never managed to go in past my knees.)

I enjoyed the Mosque and the Pagoda, but it was only prelude for the REAL reason I came to Xi’an – the terracotta warriors. That will be the next exciting installment!

Xi'an: Part I

We're back home in Xiamen after an uneventful flight -- far less eventful than our experience getting to Xi'an! I managed to take a fantastically ungraceful prat fall while walking into the Xiamen Airport. I tripped on the curb and landed face first on the sidewalk. It was such a spectacular fall that the cab driver who delivered us to the airport actually left her cab in the middle of the street to check on me! I was fine -- but I managed to split my lip with my front teeth and was bleeding like crazy. It was funny, as I was falling I realized I was going to hit my face on the sidewalk even before it happened; that whole falling-in-slow-motion thing is apparently true! Who knew?!

Anyway, I brushed myself off, checked in our luggage, and managed to secure ice for an icepack, which I found pretty amazing (finding ice, I mean)! I feel really lucky that I didn't break anything, and I still have all my teeth. And about one-third of my top lip rivals Angelina Jolie's in puffiness -- I highly recommend collagen injections over my method!

Other than that, getting to Xi'an was a breeze. We checked into our hotel, ate dinner at the hotel's buffet (pronounced by all the hostesses as boo-fey!), and had an early night. The next morning, our friends arrived by the night train from Beijing. That's Maggie and Meredith with Zoe and Maya in the picture above. My girls were really tickled to meet up with their friends from America.

Sue, Maggie & Meredith are on an OCDF tour, like the mini-tour we did with OCDF in June to Guangxi Province. Their tour includes Beijing, Xi'an & Guilin, and then they'll be visiting Meredith's and Maggie's hometowns. We arranged with the OCDF tour guide to join the group for the Xi'an portion of the trip.

We were to meet the group at 11 a.m. for the first outing, and as we walked to the lobby I saw someone who looked familiar. But it couldn't be, could it? I couldn't just run into someone else from the States in China, could I?! Sure enough, the OCDF tour included ANOTHER family I knew! I actually went to college with Melissa. We lost track of each other after I graduated from Rice, but we reestablished contact when she and her husband, Chris, were waiting to adopt Joie from China. They even came to the airport to meet Zoe when she first came home from China! Melissa was just as surprised to see me as I was to see her, and I hope she was just as delighted as I was to see another friendly face in China.

More about our Xi'an adventures in the next exciting installment of "All Roads Lead to China," same Bat-time, same Bat-station . . . .

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

We're in Xi'an

But there's no internet in our room -- business center is a bit expensive. So expect to hear all about our adventures when we return to Xiamen on Friday!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Off to Xi'an

Tomorrow we head to the ancient city of Xi’an, famous for its terracotta warriors. This has been one of my dream destinations since I first heard of the army of soldier statues buried by the first Qin emperor over 2200 years ago. When I visited China for the first time in 1991, I really wanted to go but couldn’t manage it. And it never seemed to fit in the schedule for the adoption trips, either.

Every time we fly inside China, I think of that first trip to China 16 years ago. (I came to China then as a consequence of bad geography – I was visiting a college friend living in Singapore, and figured since I was going to be there, I ought to see something of “that part of the world.” I was such a dolt that I didn’t realize just how far China was from Singapore – it would have been closer to visit Australia! I always was really bad at the blue questions on Trivial Pursuit!). China was definitely a different place then; our flight to Shanghai was diverted to Japan because we were running late, and the Shanghai airport closed at 10 p.m.! Imagine, a city 3 times the size of New York City, and the airport actually closes!

The domestic flights in China back then were absolutely terrifying. And that was on major routes – Shanghai to Beijing, Beijing to Guangzhou (I was so thankful to take the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, just to miss out on one death-defying flying leg of the trip!).

Getting on the plane was the first adventure. I had to listen intently to the announcements so I would know when they called my flight – there were announcements in English, but it was read phonetically by someone who did not speak English so it was really hard to understand. And when the flight left bore absolutely no relation to the actual scheduled time, so that wasn’t a hint for what flight was being called. (It wasn’t that the flights left late – they all left early!) When they finally would call my flight, the stampede was worse than any Southwest Airlines cattle call. There was no jetway for any of the flights; you took a bus to the plane (there’s still a lot of that in China). People packed onto that bus so tightly I kept thinking I might end up pregnant before the ride was over!

The planes were Russian made and at least 40 years old. When we got on the plane, the seat backs were all folded forward, flat to the seat. You had to fold your seat back into shape – and then you lifted the seat cushion to store your luggage UNDERNEATH your seat. So you rode sitting on your carry-on luggage! Maybe that’s why no one seemed to have actual luggage for their carry-ons. I distinctly remember one man’s carry-on being 12 shoe boxes tied together (traveling shoe salesman? shoe fetishist?). My small tote made my seat awfully lumpy.

The pilots must have thought they were flying helicopters – we seemed to taxi for a nanosecond before taking off at a million miles an hour, and then we reversed it on landing, seeming to drop out of the sky. While in the air, the planes all made this horrible groaning sound as parts of the airplane body shifted. The planes must have been much better made than they looked, though, since they survived a dozen bounces before the wheels finally stuck on the ground.

You know that announcement they make telling you to stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened until the plane stops? Apparently they said it only in English – the Chinese version must have been something like, “Please get up right this minute and wrestle your carry-on luggage out from under your seat. If you have anything in the overhead compartment, get it out right now and whack a foreigner in the head with it. Fold down the seat back in front of you. Don’t worry about crushing that stupid foreigner who insists on staying in the seat for no apparent reason.”

And despite that description of air travel, I LOVED that trip to China! It was a large part of the reason I chose China when I decided on international adoption as the way to make my family. So I’ve been back three times now since that first amazing trip.

It’s astonishing to me how modern and mundane air travel is in China now. The airports, airplanes, etc., are basically indistinguishable from American domestic ones. The service is distinguishable, though – it is far superior. I love it that the flight attendants here will actually help you store your carry-on bag, something that never happens on an American carrier. And you still get actual meals on Chinese flights. They’re not wonderful, but our last several flights have had basic rice, chicken, veggie dishes that were pretty tasty for airline food.

That announcement at the end, though – the Chinese version apparently still says to get up and move around the cabin as soon as the wheels hit tarmac!

Next you hear from us, we'll be in Xi'an (assuming internet connectivity!).

Saturday, July 21, 2007

How Do You Spell Relief?

Well, for headache pain, that's been a mystery for me in China -- at least, until now! I have had a heck of a time trying to find acetamenophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) in China. I finally had some luck at Watson's, a British store that's like Walgreen's or CVS. The problem is that it isn't sold under a recognizeable American brand name -- it's Australian or European brand names!

So here's a tip for all future expats: if you want ibuprofen in China, look for Fenbid. If you're looking for acetamenophen, look for Panadol or Paracetamol.

How do you spell relief? F-E-N-B-I-D!

Friday, July 20, 2007

What I WON'T Miss About China

In no particular order . . .

The net nanny. It’s been a pain to use the internet here, in part because my service provider is the university, and I think they have too many people using it. It was great when we first got here, because students were still playing and not working, but when the semester really got going, the internet slowed to a crawl. But the other problem is the Great Firewall of China. I never know when a website will be blocked, and it’s sometimes hard to know whether the internet problems I’m having are technology or deliberate blocking. Admittedly, most everything I’ve wanted to see has been available to me. But the fact that Blogger is blocked has been a real problem. It’s pretty odd to know that everyone EXCEPT ME can read my blog!

The heat. OK, I’ve already waxed eloquent on this subject. I won’t repeat myself. (Have I mentioned that it’s hot? Really, really, really, really hot? That I sweat all the time? That my children refuse to touch me anymore because I’m wet all the time? That I’m going to have to throw away all my shoes and my watch because leather really starts to stink when it’s been marinating in sweat all the time?!). It’s a good thing summer hit when it did – not having to deal with the heat is the only thing that really makes me happy to be leaving China!

The bank. Most of the time I can avoid Chinese bureaucracy; the bank is the big exception. Whenever I’ve had to actually use a teller instead of the ATM, my patience is sorely strained. I had to change money today since I needed more than the daily ATM withdrawal limit to pay for airline tickets. I gave myself 50 minutes before I had to be at Maya’s class to teach English. As soon as I walked into the bank, I knew that I’d be cutting it close. There were 4 people in line ahead of me, and only one teller. I was in line for 25 minutes before my turn for the teller. Surely 25 minutes will be enough time to change money, right?! Wrong! It took 30 minutes, two phone calls, looking at two different computer terminals, filling out 3 forms, stamping each form 3 times with a chop, counting the traveler’s checks (five of them) 4 times, counting the stack of yuan 4 times – twice by machine and twice manually, adding everything up twice on a calculator, AND THEN handing the whole mess over to a manager to do it all again! And this is at the Bank of China, which is THE bank you’re supposed to go to to exchange foreign currency. How in the world has China managed such phenomenal economic growth when the simplest banking transaction takes ONE HOUR??!!

The noise. The noise in China seems constant. I don’t know where you’d have to go if you were desperate for a moment of silence. And it’s not just that we’re living in the middle of a city. Yes, there’s traffic noise – but traffic is noisier here. The buses and trucks, in particular, are deafening. No one has ever heard of noise pollution, I guess. And then there’s the shops. You walk down a shopping street, and each store has music blaring, and each a different song, of course! Oftentimes there will be a person on a loudspeaker in the doorway, exhorting people to stop in. A salesclerk will be clapping loudly and rhythmically to draw the attention of passersby to the store. And everyone walking by is talking at top volume to be heard over the music, clapping, and traffic noise! Admittedly, some of the noise is fun noise – the girls loved it when the frogs started hatching or whatever it is they do, and we walked through the park to the sound of “ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg-ugg” every morning. I loved it when we first got here and I woke up each morning to hear the Buddhist monks at the monastery making noise to chase away evil spirits (now I sleep right through it!) And every night between 7:30 and 8:30 we hear a tenor singing opera (Western opera, not Chinese opera) and I STILL haven’t figured out where it’s coming from!

The smells. That traffic I mentioned? No one has thought to limit exhaust fumes from trucks or buses any more than noise. And then there’s garbage in the street, fumes from inefficient sewers, harsh chemical cleaners and pesticides, and who knows what else! And remember the heat? The Chinese don’t use deodorant, and you simply will not find it for sale here. The bad smells aren’t constant, but it’s a pretty rare day when one of the girls isn’t squeezing her nose closed and saying, “Stinky!” But then there’s incense wafting from the Buddhist temple next door, and the smell of fresh dirt and fresh vegetables in the market, and WONDERFUL cooking smells from the food stalls along the street, so it isn’t all bad.

The stares. Most of the time, the staring doesn’t bother me. It does bother, Zoe, though. And I admit sometimes, usually when I’m tired and hot and not feeling like being charming, it can irritate me, too. I try to remind myself that people aren’t being rude, they’re being interested. I’ll usually just look them in the eye, smile and say, “Ni hao!” They’ll dissolve into giggles and say “ni hao” back, and we’ll both feel good about the exchange. But sometimes you just don’t want to make the effort to make a good impression. It does feel like we’re on display all the time, and I want everyone to have a good impression of Americans and of Americans who adopt Chinese kids, and of Chinese adoptees, and that can get exhausting!

Spitting & picking. The spitting doesn’t get to me as much as the nose-picking does. I spend so much time telling Maya to get her finger out of her nose (one of her first phrases was “no pick nose!”) that I don’t much appreciate the role-modeling she’s getting on that front! And it isn’t just nose-picking – it’s the charming nostril clearing without aid of tissue (The first time I ever saw that trick was in a fishing village in Malaysia, where the whole town was built on stilts over the water. I figured it was something the villagers developed BECAUSE they were over water, and could handily clear their nostrils overboard, as it were. Little did I know then that it was common among land-lubbers, too!). Even when you know it’s just a cultural difference, it is a little disconcerting to make eye contact with one of the starers and have them lift their hands and casually pick their noses while we watch!

No ice. If I were to live in China permanently, I’d have to rig an ice maker with bottled water or something! I get really tired of filling up my little ice trays with bottled water, but it sure is better than nothing. I don’t mind that I can’t drink the tap water, or use it to brush teeth, etc., but it is a pain not to have an automatic ice maker. And that’s especially true since you can’t get ice much of anywhere in China (KFC is an exception to the no ice rule, and I admit to an addiction to their 9 Lives fruit juice which comes with ICE! I don’t eat at American fast food joints in China, but I’ll happily drink there!). In fact, most of the time in restaurants they’ll apologize if they think the canned or bottled drink they’ve brought you is too cold – I always want to say, “there’s no such thing as a too-cold drink!”

The crowds. We all know there are 1.3 billion people in China. What I find amazing is that all of them happen to be wherever I happen to be whenever I happen to be there! Whether at the park, the store, the bus, the street, the beach, there’s always a crowd. And if I’m trying to compete with the crowd – standing in line at check-out, racing for one of the few empty seats on the bus, trying to pass through narrow store aisles – I ALWAYS lose! The Chinese just have way more experience dealing with crowds than I have. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that when Americans try to get through crowds, we make ourselves small – we tuck in our elbows close to the body, sidle through with head and shoulders down, take tiny steps with our feet close together. We want to maintain our space, that large bubble that prevents us from getting too close to others in the crowd. Not so the Chinese – they make themselves BIG! Those elbows jut out, the bag or purse swings, no one worries about walking into or through someone else – it’s full speed ahead! No wonder I’m always outgunned!

Limited English reading material. This has been REALLY hard! I’m a voracious reader, and there was no way to bring enough to keep me occupied. But I thought I’d have a better reading selection from the international bookstores here – not so. I’m down to old issues of the New Yorker magazine – nothing like reading reviews of 3-year-old Broadway plays! I find myself fantasizing about Half-Price Books – that’ll be one of my first stops when we get back home.

Some of you might be surprised by what’s NOT on the list – squat potties! I admit, I’m as surprised as you are. I expected to REALLY hate them, but I’ve found they’re not that bad. It’s a bigger problem that there’s no toilet paper, because you have to plan ahead, than that it’s a squat toilet. And some public toilets can be dirty and odiferous, but that’s the case with Western public toilets, too.

Also not on the list – Chinese food and/or eating with chopsticks. I have never, ever gotten tired of eating Chinese food. There’s just so much variety, especially with vegetables. There are so many different kinds of greens, and many are known only in one province, so it isn’t at all unusual for the Chinese folks you’re dining with not to know the name of what they’re eating! Admittedly, I sometimes fantasize about a really good cheeseburger, but I haven’t missed Western food enough to go on a concerted hunt for it here. Part of it is that I love GOOD food, of whatever kind, and local food is more likely to be GOOD. And the chopsticks were rough at first, but now I can do pretty well with them. I know people must have been disgusted watching me when I first got here; oftentimes I had to use my fingers because I just couldn’t manage to pick up whatever-it-was with the chopsticks. And using your fingers to eat food is really taboo here (considering that picking stuff I mentioned before, is it any wonder?!). It’s interesting to watch people eat at KFC – they’ll leave the sandwich in the wrapper to eat it and hold the piece of fried chicken with a napkin rather than directly with fingers. And KFC will give you plastic gloves on request, and it isn’t unusual to see someone eating their lunch with those cafeteria-lady gloves on. All the fast food places also have sinks for hand-washing OUTSIDE the bathroom because so many people insist on washing hands before eating the food they’ll have to pick up with fingers (it’s also handy for pottying babies – today I watched two ladies holding their babies over the sink to go potty, rather than go into the bathroom and actually do it with the squat toilet! So don’t actually TOUCH the sink in China, ok?!)

As I took the bus to the supermarket this morning I was reminded of what I will miss in China. We passed Nanputuo Temple, with the incense-and-hell-money-sellers hawking their wares. The bus then wended its way through the old treaty-port part of town, and I watched old men sitting in front of a fruit market playing an ancient game like checkers. Another old man was preparing his tea in a tiny pot surrounded by even tinier cups. We passed a park where morning exercises were in full swing. We passed an old apartment building and I watched a woman hanging clothes on her balcony yelling down to her neighbor, also hanging clothes on her balcony. A grandmother pushed a toddler in a little kiddie car in front of the apartments. As we approached city hall and the business district, I saw a husband and wife walking along the sidewalk with their portable restaurant – she carried two huge metal pots balanced from a stick over her shoulder and he carried bowls and little stools no higher than 6 inches. When a lady approached them, they set it all down, regardless of the walkers around them, and filled a china bowl with what looked like noodle soup. They and the lady sat on the little stools in the middle of foot traffic while the lady leisurely ate her noodles. We reached shopping row, and old ladies returning from the vegetable markets vied for sidewalk space with young women in colorful cotton frocks and high, high heels, talking on their cell phones. The terminus for Bus 21 is the train station, where entire families sat patiently with their belongings in boxes and shopping bags and cloth totes and everything BUT suitcases, waiting for the train back to rural China.

This is what I’ll miss – people watching, life at a more leisurely pace, unusual sights around every corner, an adventure every day!

Riding the School Bus

I think I've mentioned before that six weeks after we got here we discovered there was actually a bus to the girls' kindergarten. But by that time, the weather was lovely and we were firmly in our routine of walking the mile or so to school each day. And I had to walk right by their school to get to the law school, so why not walk them to school?!

Well, as the weather has gotten hotter and hotter, I've rethought that decision! This week the girls started to take the bus. It took a while for us to arrange it -- apparently you're supposed to sign up at the beginning of the school year and pay the special fee, and trying to do it at the tail end of the school year makes everyone think you're crazy. For a while they wanted me to pay the full fee for just the last few weeks because they just didn't know how to pro-rate it, but they eventually just threw up their hands and waived the fee. I guess that's my reward for all the English classes! We finally got it arranged, and what a blessing! The bus stops two blocks from our apartment, so no more sweltering hikes in the heat! And the girls feel so grown up now that they ride the bus.

I'm glad I didn't know about this at the beginning, though. Walking the girls to school gave me a real opportunity to see the school and feel comfortable with them there. I was able to build relationships with the teachers. And sitting in the courtyard watching the girls play after school gave me a chance to know other parents and grandparents. On nice days, that was one of my favorite parts of the day.

But waiting at the bus stop this week I've met different parents. It might have made it easier to make play dates with kids in our immediate neighborhood. The best of all possible worlds would probably have been to walk girls to school a few days a week and have them take the bus a few days a week. But I can't imagine the consternation that out-of-the-box suggestion would have caused!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

15,000 and Counting!

Wow! Hard to imagine that people have visited “Xiamen Adventure” over 15,000 times! I don’t know how many individuals have actually visited – it could be the same 3 of you over and over again! But I really am gratified by everyone’s interest in our adventure. Some of you know us personally, but I also feel I’ve made new friends, especially in those who’ve posted comments or emailed us. Sitemeter, and especially the comments and emails, has really been a lifeline for me. It has helped me to feel connected to friends and family back home to see that folks are actually reading what I write! So, to frequent commenters like Wendy, Sophie’s Mom, Salome’s Mom, Sue, Allen, Judy in KS, Dee, H. Whitaker, Stephie, Mary, Sally, Kerri, Elizabeth in KS, Mimi, and Anonymous in all your guises, thank you!

Sitemeter has really been fun in showing how people found the blog, where they’re from, and when they’re reading. I think anyone can click on the Sitemeter button on the bottom of the blog and get the same information. And as I’ve said before, it doesn’t show anything that identifies you personally, so don’t worry! I know I’m completely nerdy to be interested in this, but I thought I’d share some of the things Sitemeter tells me.

I think, for example, that a number of you are reading on the sly at work. Evidence for that? The huge weekend drop-off in visitors! Consider a typical week in June:

Monday 145
Tuesday 179
Wednesday 143
Thursday 161
Friday 110
Saturday 94
Sunday 96
Monday 160
Tuesday 148

Of course, it could just be that people are too busy to surf the internet on the weekends, but for some of you your ISP gives you away! It’s especially clear for the government workers with that tell-tale .gov. So, welcome to workers for the State of Nevada, State of Kansas, County or City of Los Angeles, City of Multnomah, Oregon – you know who you are!

I love the wide variety of google searches that lead folks here, too. Those looking for girls in Xiamen, nude girls in Xiamen, and escorts in Xiamen find us. Lots of people get here looking for information about squat potties, spitting and smoking in China, dentists in China, and giving birth in China. They find us when looking for Nanputuo Temple and Xiamen Botanical Gardens. “Guilin floods” and “Guiping photos” have also brought people here. And who knew that so many people were interested in Liu SanJie? It is also interesting to see who googles their own name and finds the blog (teehee!) And I’m intrigued by the number of searches for “Xiamen Adventure.” Are these repeat visitors who keep forgetting the blog address? Or are people talking about the blog to their friends and saying, “Just google ‘Xiamen Adventure?’”

My favorite searchers are those looking for something off the wall, who then stick around a while to read. For instance, someone for Poland searched for “red pandas and camera.” I don’t know what they were really looking for, but they found us, and read for almost 20 minutes!

And a special thanks to those who have linked to the blog on their website. People are reading you and finding me. I’ve found some really cool blogs this way, too, by backtracking to them using Sitemeter. Check out:

Adventures with Molly

Wishing for Lia



Coming Around Again

Miracle of Meizhi

Chopsticks and Tabouli

A Million Miles to Mia

Six Seven

Jack's New Family

All of these blogs are adoption-related, and between the clicks from them and from yahoogroups adoption listservs and google searches for China adoption, I can tell that most who are reading are connected to international adoption -- and mostly Chinese adoption -- in some way. Pretty cool to think that what I'm writing might be helpful to adoptive families since I read SOOOOO many adoption blogs while paperchasing and waiting for my girls!

It’s fun, also, to see where people are from. There are readers from Egypt (I know who you are!); Israel, Cremlingen, Germany; Bunnik, Utrecht, Netherlands; Halifax, Nova Scotia, and other foreign locales. And then there are the faithful readers from Norcross, Georgia; Massapequa, New York; Overland Park, Kansas; Falls Church, Virginia; Eden Prairie, Minnesota; and, of course, our hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.

Now, don’t be insulted if I haven’t named you; it’s probably because Sitemeter often reports “unknown” for location, referral, ISP, etc. You’re still counted among the 15,000.

Several folks have asked if I’ll continue to blog after we get home. I will for a little while, to let you know how we’re transitioning back to Stateside. I’m not sure, though, that “Xiamen Adventure” will continue beyond that. But who knows, maybe we’ll be back in China soon, and I’ll be blogging as “Kunming Adventure” or “Nanjing Adventure” or the like.

Blogging about our adventures has been a wonderful outlet for me. I’ve mentioned before that I process things by writing about them. And I think blogging really helped me to keep a positive attitude, to be open to new experiences, and to find the joy in everyday life in China – after all, I HAD to have something to write about (nearly) every day! Our time in China has been quite an adventure, and I couldn’t let this 15,000-hit milestone pass without saying, “Thanks for coming along for the ride!”

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Chinese Parents and Education

When I wrote about Zoe’s kindergarten graduation, I wrote half-kiddingly, "My goodness, it doesn’t take much imagination on my part to see her in 12 years, ... or in 19 or 20 years graduating from law school or medical school, or getting her Ph.D."

Allen commented, “I think you just sound like a Chinese parent.” LOL! I’m not sure you mean that as a compliment, Allen (even though you’re a Chinese parent)! But I give Chinese parents a lot of credit for stressing the importance of education, though they are often given a bad rap – and maybe deservedly so – for pushing their kids too hard in that regard. But it’s not like that’s an exclusively Chinese phenomenon – one of my all-time favorite book titles is Toilet-Trained for Yale: Adventures in 21st Century Parenting. The author takes a half comic/half serious look at American parenting excesses to prepare kids for future success.

One reason Chinese parents push their kids (especially sons) to excel academically is purely practical – that’s the ticket to economic success. And given the tradition of parents living and being supported by their son in their old age, the more success your son has, the better your retirement years will be. Investing money and time in your child’s education is like making payments into a pension plan – your sacrifices now will pay off in the future.

But I think the Chinese value education, in and of itself, over other kinds of success. In China, there’s a centuries-long tradition of venerating scholars (derailed by the Cultural Revolution, but back on track). Scholars are more important that politicians and rich men and basketball players and rock stars. If you asked a Chinese parent, “Which would be better – your child winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or an Academy Award for Best Actor,” and most would pick the Nobel Prize. What do you think the answer would be from American parents?

Certainly, Chinese parents are often thought of as too concerned about education, too single-minded about academic success. Just before the May 1 holiday, I saw a poster go up on the bulletin board near the law school. It was a team photo of the women’s inter-mural volleyball champions, and one of the team members was in my class! I congratulated her, and since we had been talking about the students’ plans to go home for the holiday, I asked if she was going to take a picture of the poster so she could show her parents. She laughed and said her parents wouldn’t care, that Chinese parents only wanted to hear about good grades and only bragged about their children winning scholarships. I think that’s a little sad. Maybe she’s wrong about her parents’ reaction, but they have certainly created the impression in her that they only care about academics.

Now, I admit, as important as I think education is, I think it is more important for my children to be happy than to be well-educated. But I admit a bias in thinking that the two are rarely mutually exclusive. After all, the real value in education is in helping us to figure out what makes us happy. And I make a point of complimenting my girls for all of their talents and abilities, not just for being “smart.” They are also kind and generous and thoughtful and loyal and strong and artistic and graceful and persistent and funny and honest and curious and beautiful. I want them to know that I value all parts of them.

But having said all of that, I still respect the way Chinese parents value education. (What do you expect me to say?! I'm a university professor!) So, Allen, thanks for the compliment!

P.S. Alright, I CONFESS! I had to ask my students to translate Zoe's kindergarten report card. The students were pleased to tell me (and I was tickled to hear) that the first column, where all her checkmarks are, is "the very BEST!"

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

All's Well!

Maya seems fully recovered, and did fine at school today. Good thing -- I had to teach my last class today, and wasn't sure what I'd do if she was still sick!

So, with classes over, my only work duties are grading papers and distributing the books and office supplies I had shipped here. The Fulbright program allows you to ship teaching materials and other books via diplomatic pouch -- I think that's really funny, that's it's via diplomatic pouch. I've always had this vision of the diplomatic pouch as a briefcase handcuffed to some diplomat's wrist. I've since discovered that there is a "Pouch Facility" in suburban Washington, D.C., and boxes and cases and crates are shipped through there to embassies and consulates overseas. I shipped 5 boxes, each about the size of a banker's box, filled with books. So much for the romance and mystery of the diplomatic pouch!

To distribute the books, I'll give right of first refusal to several faculty members who teach American law or comparative law, and then the rest of the books will be donated to the Xiada law library. I've already promised my two DVD sets on the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court (both PBS series, and very good) to the history professor I've mentioned -- I think they will be more useful to history students than law students.

It's also time to start getting serious about getting packed up to leave. We're going to try to come home with no more luggage than we left with, so I need to be ruthless about what we leave here. I've already got one suitcase packed with the few winter clothes we need to bring back (so much of the stuff is now outgrown or worn out so we can leave it behind), souvenirs, and the tons of gifts we acquired while in Guangxi Province. We'll leave all the household items we've bought and all the English reading material we brought with us for the next occupants. Once we subract everything we brought with us that was consumable -- shampoo, toothpaste, medicines, etc. -- we'll be fine, I think. And if worse comes to worse, we can always buy another suitcase and pay the overweight charge -- it'll only be for the domestic flight from here to Guangzhou, since we only had one checked bag apiece coming over and we're entitled to two checked pieces on the international leg.

We still have a little time -- our flight leaves Guangzhou for LAX on July 31 -- that's 14 days. But we're looking at taking a little trip to Xi'an next week. It's the one place in China I've always wanted to go and have always managed to miss. Some friends of ours from Fort Worth (Hi Sue, Maggie & Meredith!) will be visiting there, and we're trying to make plans to join them. And I'm about to make our flight plans from Xiamen to Guangzhou, and I'm thinking about going to Guangzhou a day early and having one last fling at the White Swan before we leave China. So all these frolics and detours are going to cut into our purging and packing time.

My goodness, I think I better stop writing and get busy! Bye for now!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ideology or Commerce?

I thought this news story was interesting when I ran across it (I don't know a thing about this news organization, so I can't vouch for its accuracy):

Next July 16th [that’s today] pilgrims and faithful from Henan will not be
allowed to go on pilgrimage to the sanctuary in Tianjiajing. The government from
the province of Henan has in fact decreed that the historic sanctuary dedicated
to Our Lady of Mount Carmel will be blown up with dynamite; a complete ban on
Catholics organizing their annual pilgrimage; a complete ban on any religious
gathering or function being celebrated in the area. A statue of the
Virgin, over one hundred years old, is destined to be destroyed along with 14
stations of The Way of the Cross which punctuate the entrance to the
In answer on May 14th the government of Anyang city revoked the
sanctuary’s permit and the permit for the pilgrimage, defining them as “illegal
religious activity” and May 16th he issued a resolution which denies access to
the land to Anyang Church, requisitioning the sanctuary site.

What I thought interesting about the story wasn’t so much that the local government would prohibit such a religious observance – China’s abysmal record on religious freedom is fairly well known. What intrigued me was supposition about WHY:

According to some suppositions, the local government move requisitioning the
lands and abolishing the pilgrimage is due to the geographical position of the
Church, on the summit, above a valley ideal for the building of a hotel or
perhaps country villa of some Party member.

Not ideology, not control (after all, a gathering of 45,000 people is scary to this regime), but commerce is behind it?! It reminded me of my students’ doubtful reaction to the Xiamen government’s promises about the PX plant – it’s all about GDP. Ahh, the new China!

I Spoke Too Soon

Maya isn’t over her cold, after all. She coughed all night and then woke up this morning with those glazed-looking eyes that tell you there’s a fever long before the thermometer does. Her temp was only 99.9, but that’s enough to spend another day at home. And I didn’t see dragging her on a mile-long walk to take Zoe to school, so Zoe stayed home, too. Maya’s fever is gone, but she still has the cough.

So, what’s it like when your child’s sick in a foreign country? Not that different from when she’s sick in the States – at least, when she’s only this sick. I admit it makes me “what if” the situation a little more – what if her fever gets higher? What if the cough doesn’t go away? What if she gets strep? What if she gets an ear infection? I can’t say I’d relish a return visit to the Xiamen Women & Children’s Hospital (where we went for the girls’ school physicals). I wouldn’t even relish a visit to the supposedly western medicine clinic in Xiamen. I not really worried, but it does make you think. We’ve been really lucky that I haven’t had to worry about it at all up to now. And as you can see from the princess picture, Maya’s actually feeling pretty good! (I couldn’t resist posting it so you could see what we do in China when we’re not doing anything at all!)

I also have to share two kids-say-the-darnedest-things comments from today – either the girls were exceptionally funny all day or I’ve gone completely stir-crazy!

First, from the Truer Words Were Never Spoken Department. We were watching two shirtless men play badminton in the courtyard outside our window. Zoe says, “Mama, when boys grow up, do they still feel like kids? Since they don’t get those lumps (breasts) that girls do?”

Then, from the Department of the Obvious Department. Apropos of nothing, Maya declares, “Mama, I LOVE dolphins! They are special in my heart!” I reply, “Really? Why are they special in your heart?” Maya answers, in a tone that reveals she considers me a complete dope, “Because I love them!” And then if that’s not enough, she says, “I wish we had one in our house.” I say logically, “But we don’t have a bathtub.” She collapses in giggles: “A dolphin is TOO BIG for a bathtub!” Yeah, like she had a better idea where to keep one in our house?!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A VERY Quiet Weekend

My goodness, we were lazy this weekend! We left the house exactly once, and that was for dinner on Saturday because I was too lazy to cook! In fact, going out to dinner is the only reason we got dressed – all three of us spent the day in our nightgowns.

Part of the reason for our laziness is that Maya and I are both a little under the weather. She has a cold, and was so congested Friday night she kept waking up crying. I ended up putting her in bed with me so she wouldn’t keep Zoe awake, but that of course kept me awake! Still, she was feeling much better Saturday morning, and she and Zoe played quietly and let me sleep in. She seems completely over the cold today.

I think the heat has done me in this week. I’ve been so busy keeping the girls hydrated I think I neglected myself. And as much as I sweat, that’s a problem! Wednesday I was running around like crazy in the heat – taking the girls to school, running errands, doing laundry, going grocery shopping (and I ended up on un-airconditioned buses to and from the store, worse luck!). Thursday I was feeling light-headed and tired, and realized it must be heat exhaustion. So I took it easy on Thursday and drank water and Gatorade until I sloshed when I walked! I was feeling pretty good by the time I walked to kindergarten to do English lessons and pick up the girls. But Friday the dizziness was back. So we’ve now stayed out of the heat for two days doing virtually nothing, and I’m back to normal.

We’ve really been lucky on the health front. I brought every children’s medicine known to man, and Friday is the first time I’ve used any of it. And with all the exercise I’ve been getting, I’m far healthier now that when I got here. What with air pollution, hygiene differences, food and water issues, I expected we’d all take turns getting sick. How very fortunate we’ve been! If only we can make it another 16 days!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Zoe's Kindergarten Graduation

Another milestone for Zoe – kindergarten graduation! And who would have dreamed, five years ago when she came home with me, that she’d be graduating from a Chinese kindergarten?! It’s quite an accomplishment for this little girl who was dropped in this place 5 months ago, unable to speak a word of Chinese!

It wasn’t quite what I expected as a graduation, though. It was more like an end-of-year class party. There were no mortarboards, no robes, no “Pomp & Circumstances.” In fact, very few of the kids or parents made any effort to mark the occasion with fancy clothes of any kind. So Zoe really stood out in her “grown-up dress” specially chosen for the occasion. (Of course, Maya insisted on a “pretty dress,” too.)
We got to the kindergarten early (so I could have time to stop sweating and change into a dry shirt!), so we helped with chairs and balloon decorations. The kids ran around like banshees (what exactly is a banshee, anyway?!) while the parents jockeyed for a good seat.

The ceremony began with announcements in Chinese – I just clapped when everyone else did! And then each child was called up individually to make a personally prepared speech. I had NO idea that was expected, no one told me. Zoe left her seat in a panic to say she couldn’t do that, and I told her she could just say, “Thank you, Teacher, good bye, friends,” (I could understand that much in most of the kids’ speeches) in English, and that would be fine. But she categorically refused. But she wasn’t the first to refuse. Soon kids were fleeing to their parents in panic, other kids were standing in front of everyone holding the microphone and staring like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Some would squeak out a few words and then stare at the floor or ceiling as if the rest of the speech was written there. And a few hams gave their memorized speech with professional flair.

I thought this part of the program would never end – there were 38 kids after all. And the MC (one of the moms from the class) was not merciful with the kids who stood without saying a word. She let them twist in the wind FOREVER before accepting the inevitable and ushering them off center stage. But with all the kids who wouldn’t go up at all, this part was much shorter than I anticipated!
The kids then sang a song as a group, the lyrics of which said something about teachers, friends, thanks, and goodbye.
I could barely catch Zoe in any of the group activities, because she always headed right to the back row. Once, when all the head swaying worked out just right, I finally managed to catch a glimpse of her there!
She was still upset about the expected speech-making, and I’m afraid that ruined most of the ceremony for her.

BTW, you know our image of strictly-disciplined Chinese kids, acting like little automatons, especially at school? Well, not a bit of it was evident there! During all the speech-making and refusing-to-make-a-speech activity, the kids were up and down, out of their seats, fighting with each other, playing with each other, and neither parents nor teachers did a thing about it. One mom did pull her son away from a fight, but he got mad at her for doing so, so when he was supposed to play a piano duet with another boy, he sat at the piano with arms crossed and refused to touch the keys! It was all pretty funny, I thought, especially since my two girls were behaving like angels for a change!
Soon the MC was speaking again, and I could understand “Jin YiLing’s mama” – that’s my cue! They asked me beforehand to lead the children in an English song. Well, Zoe apparently didn’t think I’d heard my cue, because she came running up to me saying, “That’s you, Mama, they want you to sing!” She tugged me out of my seat and then pushed me to the front of the room, to everyone’s hearty laughter. I had the kids sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” In fact, we did it 3 times – the kids love it when I have them sing it “slowwwwwwww.” And then we sing it “fast,” which they really get a kick out of.

The parents seemed to appreciate the performance, and I was presented with a gift to say thank you. (As per Chinese tradition, I did not open the gift then, that’s not considered polite. When I unwrapped it at home, it was a lovely wooden comb. I love the English description of it:

Regarding the dye craft of it, CaoMuRan is made by picking herbaceous plants,
extracting their natural juice, treating the juice with great care in teens of
process: wash, bleach, dye, grind, solidarity its hue, add the fragrance,
polish etc. These process then can make the natural hue of plants made
into CaoMuRan reappear.

Attention: CaoMuRan is forbidden to
wash with warm water and hard brush, so as to maintain its natural beauty and
I THINK it’s telling me that it’s plant-dyed wood, and it is pretty and it does have a flowery fragrance.)

There was one more class song, in Chinese, and then there was a break for games. One game had the kids blindfolded and trying to pick out their moms from a line.
Zoe pulled me up for the second round, and I figured she’d pick me out easily since my shape is fairly distinctive in a group of petite Chinese women! Well, she didn’t want to leave it to chance, so she kept peeking out from under the blindfold. So I managed to trick her – I switched places with the mom next to me at the last minute, and Zoe made a bee-line for her. It was all we could do not to laugh when Zoe clutched her and realized almost immediately it was NOT her mom! Still blindfolded, she got me on the second try, and when one of the teachers tried to redirect her to another mom who is kind of plump, in an effort to fool her, she refused to let go! Zoe says this was her favorite part of graduation.

In the last part of the ceremony, the teacher gave each child a Chinese dictionary, and a memory book with group photos of the class and photos of each child in the class. (We were asked to bring 37 copies of a picture of Zoe “doing something fun,” and we brought one of the pictures of Zoe with a panda. So that’s what’s in everyone else’s book.)
The book also has a report card (I think) with checks in various columns next to various descriptions. I have no idea what any of it says. Zoe did either very well or very badly – almost all of her checks are in the first column. With Chinese being read right to left, I have a feeling that first column is not an A!

My favorite picture is the one of Zoe in the front – her official “graduation photo,” which was taken a few weeks ago at school. Here’s a photo of that photo:
My goodness, it doesn’t take much imagination on my part to see her in 12 years, grown into that gown and hat and graduating from high school, or in 16 years graduating from college, or in 19 or 20 years graduating from law school or medical school, or getting her Ph.D. . . . Heady stuff, these graduations in miniature!