November 1-2, 2009
We got sick on Sunday night and thought we were coming down with H1N1 or something similar, so we stayed in the house for two days. But by Wednesday morning we were feeling much better, which was good because Deb had to give her midterm exam that day.
So, I tried to catch up on work on Wednesday, and then at 4:00 PM, I went to hear the Russian and Chinese combined musical performance. It was a really wonderful performance! I especially loved it when a group of Russian women sang a song from a Beijing opera beautifully. The audience erupted with applause, too! Then a little later, the Chinese musicians returned the favor, and the Russians in the audience burst into excited appreciation!
I could have listened and watched a lot longer, but the performance ended on schedule, and Deb and I had an hour to rush to the Xiao Hua (Little flower) to have supper before going back to the odeum to hear students perform traditional Chinese music on traditional Chinese instruments. I loved it!. In the photos, look for the yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), pipa (Chinese lute or Chinese mandolin), erhu (Chinese 2-string fiddle), guzheng (Chinese zither), and sheng (Chinese mouth organ). Note that the bow strings of the erhu run between the two fiddle strings!
So, Pinkie wrote to tell me she was sorry, but there were no recitals this week, to which I responded, that is fine because I had just learned that I had been scheduled to give a talk Saturday evening about Study abroad in America. Just about that time, Pinkie wrote back and said that there is a vocal recital on Saturday evening, but I told her again that I was booked already. However, I notified the other foreigners, so I hope they were able to go. On Friday, I learned that Deb and I were to be honored guests at the Model UN session starting on Saturday morning, and we were also invited to be at the gala dance Saturday evening. (But I was already booked…).
But back to sequence. On Thursday, we both have class, so after class, and Deb and I went to dinner at the sweet and sour pork restaurant (we are pretty steady customers), which is next to one of the bike shops. That is handy because my rear tire was rather slack. The guy at the bike shop of course pumped me up for free, but I don’t know whether the tire is slack due to a leak or slack because it is 20-25oC colder now than it was when I bought the bike. So, I asked if he had a pump to sell. He said ¥28 . I said great (I know it can’t be much of a pump for $4, but if it gets me out of jam, that is well worth it.) Presently, he brought out a pump made of low impact plastic (I am sure), and would only take ¥10. So, cool! I have a little pump that actually works and a firmly filled tire. After dinner, we stopped at LiQun because that is “the best place to buy flower tea.” Sue recommended chrysanthemum flowers that LiQun sells for ¥ a packet. We also got some red clover tea. Actually, they both are surprisingly good, but there is no tea in either one – just dried flower blossoms.
Friday morning. Zoe called and said, “we’re going to the grape farm, can you be ready this afternoon?” First, I knew that the reason “we” were going to the grape farm is because I had said on October 3 that I would love to go. Second, I have a class Friday afternoon, and I also had two appointments with students from SICA – one to learn what I was to do at the Model UN session the next morning (more later) and the other to inform me about all of SICA’s activities – which are many. However, I pointed out that Deb might be available, and gosh darn it, she was! So, here is Deb to tell you all about the grape farm.
Grape Picking: Last Tuesday when I went out for a KFC run to bring back something home for dinner that I did not have to fix, I ran into Zoe who had just finished a long walk with Leo. The last time I had seen her was the windfarm viewing and the dinner she arranged with her cousin. She suggested that we get together later in the week for grape picking. She said she would call us. Okay, I said. She called Friday morning to see if we could go on Friday afternoon, but Finnie had just been asked the night before to give his “What Do You Do here” speech on Saturday. Finnie suggested that I go while he worked on his presentation for Saturday evening. I did. Zoe and Leo and a couple who are their friends and who teach in the biology department picked me up. Zoe teaches English and speaks English very well; it turned out that the other couple had lived and taught in New Zealand for a few years and her English was quite good; he understood English but did not speak much. On the way we had a long conversation about my Chinese ability. They thought I should know at least 200 characters by now after 2 months, my goodness – but at least I know more than just “nihao”. I actually know about 150 words orally, and can write about 50 characters. An aside: English is hard to learn, but I think Chinese is hard for English speakers to learn because we have to learn new words, that are spoken in tones, as well as a Romanized way of writing and a pictorial way of writing. (Okay, so now I have gotten my griping out of the way.)
It was a warm fall day but foggy, the leaves were soft fall colors, and it was a great day for a drive to the farm. At first, we took roads that I was familiar with that are belt-ways around Weihai, then we turned on a road that goes through an immense area full of manufacturing plants. The plants make clothing, solar glass, concrete, and fishing tackle. We also passed by an enormous power generation plant. These buildings each have footprints of at least 5 acres and are out in the middle of land where no one lives (but is still part of Weihai), except for a few isolated hamlets of farmers’ houses. After an hour in the car we reached the turn for the pick-your-own grape farm. Zoe had called a few days before to make sure there were still grapes and so, the farmer actually had saved several rows of grapes for us to pick. The farmer’s vineyard was at least 10 acres – probably more. After much loud chatting, I think to determine how much we wanted, we walked down the lane armed with plastic buckets, clippers, and a wheelbarrow, that in a former life had been a bicycle, to the back end of his farm and there were at least 5 rows of grapes waiting for us to choose from. Each clump had been carefully bagged to keep the birds away. The farmer’s employee, a man who proudly told us that he was 77 (looked and acted at least 10 years younger), started opening the bags and with a huge toothy smile of pride showed us his grapes – huge clusters of very deep, perfect purple grapes. We had to sample them and they were exquisitely delicious – sweeter than honey and dripping with juice. I decided not to eat them whole but just suck out the insides and my hands were instantly sticky with the wonderful juice. We clipped and clipped until we filled 3 plastic buckets with grapes – about 50 pounds, I think.
While we were picking I asked, through translation, the farmer’s assistant what he thought was the secret to his good health and he pointed to the grapes. I sure do understand that, given my penchant for fermented grape juice. I asked him, through translation, what made his grapes so delicious. And the answer was about 5 minutes long. The translation boiled down to good soil, good farm management, and good plant stock. I also learned the word for grape, “putao”.
We wheeled the bicycle-wheelbarrow back to the farm yard and amidst a hoard of flies, barking dogs and loud chatting, we picked the clumps over and sorted them into five boxes – two for each couple and one for me. The farmer had cornered the two men and discoursed for a long time about how he moved from grape street peddler to owner of this huge farm and how he has perfected the grape production. I would have loved to have known what he said – it sounds like it would have been a great entrepreneurial story to hear. Meanwhile we three women were sitting on little stools picking over the grapes. Okay, the stools – they use folding stools that stand about 6 inches off the ground and are 6 inches square – one has to get one’s rear end on that target from a standing position – it’s maybe not hard for someone who weighs less than 100 pounds and who has a skinny butt, but I am sure your image of me aiming my rear end onto a tiny speck on the ground is funnier than I could describe. I did manage to hit the target and then I waited until the others were busy with other errands before I clumsily hauled myself up. I insisted on paying for my grapes myself and after much calculation and loud discussion I paid my 45 yuan for my 10 pounds of grapes.
Combating the flies, we got in the car and ended up taking another employee home – so there were four in the backseat, me and the driver in the front. There was lots of loud chatter that was summarized for me into “we are speculating how wonderful it would be to own a farm and grow our own produce, but being city-folks we realize that we don’t know the first thing about farming”. After an hour we dropped off the worker (I’m not sure how she gets to work) in the middle of Weihai and pretty soon I started seeing landmarks I knew. I got home at 5:00 with my grapes and a gourd that Leo bought for me, and Finnie has been eating the grapes ever since.
Another aside: Driving. This was the first time I have been in the front seat on a car trip. Many lives passed before me. Driving here is a method of going from A to B in a manner that is convenient for you, the driver, and the people, cars, dogs, bicycles, tractors, and buses that get in your way are the ones who are violating the driving laws. Every time someone would come out in front of him or move toward his car our driver would honk-honk-honk and then shake his finger at them and suck in his breath. Even the slow moving police car got honked at and a finger shaking because it was not moving out of the way fast enough. We squeezed through places I thought were sure ways of bending frames, wheels, and denting hoods. We wove in and out of anything that moved at a relatively fast pace. We never stopped completely until there was a bus stopped across 3 lanes of on-coming traffic that had either run out of gas or just quit working. This created a flow of traffic that I thought would surely create many fender benders, but no, it just resulted in our driver shaking his finger and honking. I wondered what part of them doing the wrong thing was bad since he himself was making up the rules as he was driving. It is like slow motion “dodge-em” cars.
Cool. I’m back to mention that Deb didn’t take any pictures of her trip to the grape farm. She’ll probably find some way to blame me for that – like I had the camera or something like that. However, when she got home, she took a photo of a couple of the bunches they picked. These are the very best grapes ever. They are as sweet as honey and have a wonderful flavor. Remember when I said I was losing weight. Now I am gaining weight again. I am including a photo of the grapes, as well as one of a variety of fruit we are getting now — grapes, persimmons, Chinese dates (little brown apple-looking fruit with a date pit inside), a little brown fruit with a hard shell and prune-flavored fruit inside around a good-sized pit, very small delicious pears, larger apple-pear, and what we think are mandarin oranges. We have lots of each kind.
Friday night when Deb and I got home, we decided to go to a different restaurant for a change, so we randomly picked one. This one was much less appealing. We had little help is selecting dishes, and so we wound up with OK food. The best flavored dish was a huge bowl of stewed chilis with a lot of little hot red peppers thrown in for flavor. I had that one all to myself. There was a bowl of tofu and vegetables that was a little spicy, and it had a large amount of sliced bacon thrown in for – flavor (??), a plate of jiaozi (small steamed dumplings with pork), and fried rice. The latter two were quite good. After dinner it was home to work on the presentation for Saturday night.
I awoke at about 5:00 AM Saturday morning to the sound of thunder and rain. This is the first real rain we have had since coming to Weihai. And it was very cold – not Nebraska cold that freezes out the humidity, but North Carolina cold where you get the cutting wind at about freezing temperature and the air is loaded with humidity. It’s pretty miserable when you are walking or bike riding. We already knew that once you are on the street headed for the south gate of the university, you are either facing a stiff head wind or you are pushed hard by a tail wind, as it is a north-south street. So, as I listened to the wind and rain, I decided to suggest that Deb stay in the house because of her aches. She gladly agreed to do so! I headed out with my new London Fog jacket on, but since it wasn’t raining at the front door to our house, I didn’t zip it up. Big mistake. First, it acted like a big sail for the head wind to blow against, requiring me to work hard to keep moving forward. Second it started to rain pretty hard, so I was getting wet. I finally got to the International Office where I was to meet the student escort to take me to the Model UN venue, and I zipped up. We had to walk about 6 blocks to a building behind the library where the event was being held, so by now I am a wet outside and clammy wet inside a wet shell, trudging through rain and puddles. I was stewing inside the jacket. So, when I arrived at the room I was wet from the rain and the sweat. I now know that I was supposed to be there for the introductions, then leave. But Chinese etiquette apparently doesn’t allow it to be stated that way, and I did not pick up on the subtlety. It was fine for me to stay of course, and I am glad I did. The students, without faculty advising or coaching, participated in discussion of nuclear disarmament, with various teams representing delegations from various countries on the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. They did a great job of being faithful to the country’s perspective and conducted themselves with dignity and appropriate solemnity. This Model UN activity is done all over the world, but in America in the institutions to which I had been associated, there are many faculty members initiating, coaching, leading, and generally stimulating the engagement. Not here, from what I was told. No faculty members were involved except as guests, like me. The student’s took this project on, organized it, advertized it, conducted it, and policed it all on their own! After the first round of discussion (basically each delegation presenting its position paper on the subject), it was lunch time and I decided to go home. So, I had to negotiate long and hard with SICA members to be allowed to walk back to the International Office Building to get my bike alone — and one of the students didn’t even have a jacket. She said she wasn’t cold and she really wanted to escort me all the way back to my house, but she was lying. She was cold. I finally convinced the boy and girl (i.e., man and woman), that I make this long journey on my own every day anyway so, I can do it on my own and they can go back inside to stay as dry as possible and maybe not freeze.
I called Deb to see if she wanted, you guessed it! A roujiamo. She certainly did, so I headed for the little grocery store on campus to get them. By the time I got off the phone with Deb, two girls, who were fresh (i.e., freshmen) came over to me and said they had seen me in the Model UN session, and I’m thinking, “Imagine that! How did you know I was the person you saw?” — They are going to have to call me “Sore Thumb” around here the way I stick out! Anyway, the girls just wanted to talk in English to this international celebrity, “Sore Thumb.” So, we chatted and introduced ourselves as we walked. I insist on knowing the actual names rather than their English names, so that takes some concentration and repetition usually.
By that time, I heard the familiar, “Finnie! Finnie!” and so we stopped to see who was arriving. It was Lulu. We introduced all around, and then to impress the fresh, I asked Lulu if she could predict what I would be doing in three minutes. She said, “I know what you’ll be doing,” in a most casual way. So, I said, “What?” She just said “roujiamo, of course.” I then turned to the fresh and said, “isn’t that amazing. She guessed exactly what I will be doing the very first time!” They looked a little startled. So, Lulu said, “do you know what I’ll be doing now?” I turned to the fresh and said, “I know exactly what you will be doing. First, you are going to Canteen Number 5 and have beef noodles, then you are going home to get warm and take a nap before watching a movie.” Lulu said, “Exactly!” Now the fresh were very impressed! Next Lulu asked me which way I would go to the grocery store (because we are at a corner and one has to go left or right before turning 90 degrees in order to get to the store. I said, “It’s six of one and half dozen of the other. I think I’ll go right.” (because that would take me past the entrance to Canteen number 5). Lulu asked, “What does that mean?” I explained and she said, “Oh, I get it!” By now the fresh were seeing that we were passing Canteen number 3, where I ASSUME they were planning to have lunch so, we all separated, and I trudged on to the grocery store. I walked in and there was my special lady – the one who as soon as she sees the “Sore Thumb” or even “Ms. Sore Thumb,” holds up two fingers and we nod and hold up two fingers, so by the time I got to the counter, she was handing two roujiamo’s over to me. This is Saturday! Does she never take a break? I wanted to ask, but there were dozens of hungry students there and so I decided to just take my stuff and leave – but I would like to know her schedule.
I got home. We ate our food, and then I got into bed to warm up before putting the final touches on my presentation on Study in America.
Have I mentioned that this is Saturday, and I am supposed to speak to students about going to study in America from 7:00 to 9:00 PM?! This is Saturday, what was SICA thinking? They were thinking that a lot of students would be there. They were correct! Deb and I guess that there were at least 50 interested students. It was cold and windy, but that didn’t stop the students. Since I didn’t need to know ahead of time, I did not know that Pian, Yvonne, June (another young woman from the International Office), as well as three undergraduate students who had studied in the US were there to present their perspectives as well. So, after introductions, I was asked to lead off with a SICA member running the computer for me. I was trying to stay to my 20 minutes and I had 51 slides and a movie to show. All that requires split second timing and all that, which wasn’t happening. (OK, it was stupid of me to try to do all that, but Deb agreed that I needed all the slides.) An attempt by someone to dim the lights resulted in switching off all power to the room, so the computer and the project died a sudden death! Now we’ve stepped in it! The SICA student had to reboot, restart everything including the projector and that took a good while. While we were waiting (and no students said anything smart or giggled or anything), I noticed the advertising poster that SICA had prepared to advertise this big event was now at the front of the room, and among other things, it stated in English, “We are here to cast light on the darkness of your life.” So, I took Pian over to the poster and said, “but we brought darkness to their light! Cool!” She laughed, but Deb and Yvonne and June all cracked up! Once we finally got rolling, I did my 51 slides and the 6 minute 50 second movie all within my 20 minutes, and then the students talked about their experiences. Two of them have just returned from a year at UNK, and they clearly had had a great experience. The other one also had a great experience and he had gone to a university in California. Then June and Yvonne spoke about the 1+2+1 program, and finally, Pian spoke about preparing for the TOEFL and then showed more slides about UNK – so, even though it technically wasn’t a UNK night, UNK got more than its share of publicity.
Well, 9:00 PM came and went, and we were still talking with students. It was almost 10:00 PM before we were ready to leave, and then we had the same battle as always, two students felt obliged to take us home. Pian was determined to drive us home, but we fought bravely and compromised on having the girl and boy, who were literally freezing, walk us to our bikes and then get Deb’s down to the street before letting us ride home! At home, we made popcorn, and watched TV. I started reading the book that Sue loaned me – an English translation of The Journey West.
I asked Deb about her thoughts about our experiences here, and she made the following contribution, some of which features the events I just described, but from her perspective.
Students and Classrooms: Finnie asked me this morning [Saturday] what I thought of this experience. I tend to answer with details, not the overall general statements he thinks he should get from such a question. I think this is a difference between Mars and Venus. Anyway, after my answer he suggested I write it to pass along to you.
Students here are generally polite, over-helpful, very respectful, and interested in learning whatever you have to offer. Either they have learned the system very well, or they genuinely feel this is the proper way to act. This is something I have not discerned yet. But I think that the latter is the truth. Here are some examples. The classrooms are “smart’ in that they have the teacher’s computer linked to a projector and all the computers in the classroom have internet access. But all the power for each classroom is routed through the omnipresent circuit breaker box. Both classrooms that I use are actually computer labs, so the arrangement lends itself well to groups working on projects around a computer. When I arrive in the classroom, I go to the circuit breaker box and make sure everything is in the on position. So far I have not had to touch this, because one or more of the students hop up and make sure everything is working, including the computer and projector. One day however the projector did not work and it was determined that one of the circuit breakers was off. The students clicked it on but it kept breaking the circuit. Another one of the students scurried out and rounded up the building techie person and he gingerly tried 10 times to flip the circuit breaker on but to no avail. His method was to use his fingernail to gingerly flip the switch so his finger would not touch the exposed wires in the 220 volt box. I tried really hard to say, please don’t hurt yourself – i.e. fry yourself – we will just do without today. But no, the students asked the techie if we could go to another classroom and, yes, we could. They ran downstairs to the new classroom and got everything up and going by the time I arrived. I like the new classroom better – less echo and more intimate.
My students’ English listening skills are improving – I find that I don’t have to speak as slowly and carefully as I did at first. Also, they know I am trying to learn Chinese so they say “xia wu hao“ (good afternoon) to me and giggle when I try to use my slowly growing vocabulary. They seem genuinely pleased that I am trying. This past week one girl in this class gave me a bag of Chinese dates she had bought. I said, “An apple for the teacher – thank you very much”. She giggled and her friends giggled with her.
The students in the other class all know each other very well, and always chatter and kid each other. They are genuinely interested in doing any activity I ask them to do and their ideas are beginning to get pretty original. They know it’s okay to think out of the box and in fact I like that, so they are having fun taking the concepts I try to explain and use them in the various exercises I have dreamed up. Mixing them up in different groups must be a new concept and helping them understand that there is a reason for this seems to make sense to them. I have learned to send both classes any PowerPoint (they call it “ppt”) for the class prior to the class and then they are able to follow along with me on their computers at their places. I am enjoying both classes here very much! Mainly, this is because of the students and their commitment and enthusiasm, but also, in part, I am enjoying it because I don’t feel restricted by a specific text to be completely covered in a given amount of time. So it’s fun and I feel more at ease than ever before!.
And to answer Finnie’s question – this is an incredible experience because we are living and experiencing life in China, as much as any foreigner can here. We are learning a new language, a new to us (but very old and rich) culture, new foods, new ways of cooking, new rules of etiquette, new ways of teaching, experiencing the pride of the Chinese people in their heritage and in their current social and economic expansion, and meeting new friends who seem genuinely friendly and helpful. However, none of this would be happening without the complete support of our families and Skype.
So, on Thursday, Sue brought me the first volume of a three volume set, written 700 years ago and entitled, The Journey West. It is an epic about the quest for truth and the correct pathway to God, the best I can tell. (A portion of it has been made into children’s movies both here and in the US, called The Monkey King.) The first chapter is a creation story similar in some ways to Biblical Genesis, but focusing on how the Monkey King got started. The overall story in the three volumes is a series of episodes about a young Buddhist monk who is on the journey to the west with his faithful servants, the Monkey King (who means well, but has to say, “I mess up!” a lot, I gather), the Pig, who also means well, but whose gluttony gets him into trouble a lot, and a faithful and, I gather, humble man who is both steadfast and competent. Apparently, they encounter many interesting adventures and challenges as they proceed in their quest. I am looking forward to reading it, but I haven’t even been able to complete my rereading of C. Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle yet, so I need a vacation from retirement so I will have enough time to catch up on my reading!
Yesterday, Sunday, it was very cold and damp, so we stayed in, and worked on projects.
Let me close this little note with this observation. As I was preparing the talk for Saturday night, something dawned on me. In all the photos we have from UNK, Kearney, and in fact America in general, the only ones with lots of people were performances or gatherings as in dinners. Otherwise, few if any people are seen in the photos. What dawned on me is that is maybe the biggest tangible contrast we experience between these two cultures. In both places, we have friends whom we love dearly and people have been extraordinarily good to us in both places. However, one of the really fun parts of experiencing life in China is that there are lots of people out and about at any time. It is really hard to conceive of a scene here without a lot of people in it!