Well, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that ...
My plans to have blog posts during my stay in China didn't happen, so I will catch you up now and for the next week or two. It was a lot to take in, and I'm still processing it now that I'm back. Although I was as prepared as I could have possibly been, going to China was like going to another planet. Everything was very different, even more different than I expected. It was wonderful and rewarding and equally difficult in many ways. Would I go back? Yes, I would. It was a very rich experience, and I've made some Chinese friends that I would love to see again, including a musician that I am still in touch with.
My friend and I left Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut, at 10 am on May 10th. It is now 10 pm on May 11th and we’re just now settled into our temporary housing. We slept very little on the plane, so I will keep this first post short. The flight from Hartford to Toronto was great. I had a wonderful conversation with the man seated next to me. Dan was born and raised in Romania and moved to Toronto about 25 years ago. We talked about economics, politics, relationships and more. He’s an engineer, working on airplanes and is a very smart guy. I have to say, it was really interesting hearing his perspective on what’s going on in our country.
The flight from Toronto to Beijing was uneventful but incredibly long, and getting through customs seemed to take forever, but there was a driver to pick us up. It was like “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!” He drove very well… careening in and out of traffic, driving on the shoulder, creating two lanes when there was supposed to be one, etc. But the whole time, I never felt nervous. Unfortunately, we don’t speak Chinese, and he doesn’t speak English, but we figured it out. The drive to the place we’re staying took well over an hour, and no one was home. After eating in a local restaurant and meeting a couple more people who work at the school, we came back to the first place and stayed the night. We still haven’t met the couple who live here because they’re out of town, but I guess they’ll be back later.
Meanwhile, it is very strange being in a city where we don’t know the language or the culture. All the advance work I did, reading books, watching videos and talking to people who were born and raised here, didn’t really prepare me. Thankfully, I have a translating app on my phone that translates written text, for menus, and another one that enables me to communicate. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the opposite way, and, for a while, I couldn’t get my phone to work at all. But, all of us figured it out as we went along, using our various apps and a lot of our own form of expressive sign language. I’m looking forward to settling into a routine and especially looking forward to meeting the children and working at the school.
After a good night’s rest, we spent the early part of the day in Gu’an, where we’re staying. Gu’an is in the Hebei province just outside of Beijing. It was one of the poorest counties in Hebei province with a population of 380,000 and a per-capital GDP of around $1000 USD. There was an initiative to redevelop the area that is being touted by the United Nations Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE) as one of the most successful Public-Private Partnerships (PPP). The project combines urban development with city-industry and professional operations which not only has short-term benefits and benefits the locals, it also promotes sustainable development. As of May, 2018, the population of Gu’an had reached 500,000 with the per-capital GDP exceeding $7300 USD. They tore down everything in this tiny poverty striken town and rebuilt. They gave everyone jobs and are continuing to build. I'm sure that not everyone was happy with this new development, but it sure looked to me as though they are doing the right things here. There are beautiful parks and pieces of art everywhere, it is very clean, and the people seem very happy. There are people working everywhere, planting annuals along the roadways, sweeping the streets, watering everything to keep the pollution down and more. Even the street sweepers and sanitation workers looked enthusiastic about their work.
I also noticed how child-focused everything is here. There is a wonderful Children’s Park that is huge with many different areas. It is well-used and has things for all ages including a skate board area, lots of climbing structures of different shapes and sizes, various types of bicycles and scooters to use and more. Even the bathrooms in this park were child-focused. There were even people doing Tai Chi. The parents all seem very tolerant of their children, letting them really be kids, and the children are well-behaved.
After the park, we went to the school where I will be teaching this week. There was a special program being put on by the Beijing Opera. The educator talked about the opera and demonstrated a little. Then each child had the opportunity to sing a song into a microphone and learned the proper way to bow, which was not really a bow at all but more of a specific pose. They had to look straight out into the audience as they held the pose. There were subtle differences between the boys’ and the girls’ poses, although there were two for the girls, and one of them was quite different.
A couple of the children came over to meet me, eager to try out their English. Aimee is four and a half and spoke very well. She asked me what my name is, asked what my favorite color is and told me hers, asked if I was a grandma and how old I am. She seemed a bit confused about my age. Maybe she hasn’t learned her numbers up that high, yet. She also played the Guzheng for me. The students all get lessons on this traditional instrument once a week. They also get lessons once a week from the Beijing Opera. In addition to these music lessons, the students learn to use a pottery wheel and make their own cups or bowls, and each child has their own plant that they care for throughout the school year. All in all, it was a very impressive place, and I haven’t even seen the whole school full of students yet.
We had Western food for lunch, with three of the teachers, then went to the zoo. I’m not usually a fan of zoos, but this one was not too bad, and the teachers really wanted us to see it. It is the largest free range zoo in China, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not contained. It just means that there are some open areas for them. It was funny to see the families so excited about seeing turkeys when we have flocks of them running wild around our area. There was even a safari train that we rode where some of the harmless animals came walking up to be fed.
Although the teachers wanted to take us out for dinner, Jen and I are both exhausted and decided to stay in. Also, I twisted my ankle this morning and, after all the walking we did today, it’s pretty swollen, so I want to keep it elevated and iced. We’ll have our leftovers from last night’s dinner and go to bed early. We get picked up at 7:50 in the morning for a full work day, and I want to feel refreshed and ready.
May 15th, 2019
Today, I had an interesting and unusual (for me) experience. The first full day that we were here in China, I twisted my ankle. Although it hurt, I mostly ignored it and did way too much walking. The next morning, my whole foot and ankle were very bruised and swollen. I had brought Arnica, a homeopathic medicine, with me and took it until it ran out and had also iced it that evening, but although the swelling came down some and there was no longer much visible bruising, it was still very sore. Using photos and my translator app, I tried to find an ace bandage to wrap it in. I managed
to make myself understood, but there were none of them to be found. Finally after school today, the teacher who has been translating for me and arranging rides, insisted on taking me to the “hospital”. I resisted, explaining that I couldn’t afford to pay for a hospital. “This is not the United States,” she explained. “Here, in China, the hospitals and doctors are affordable.” So, off we went.
The hospital was unlike any other hospital I’ve ever been to. It was like walking into a pharmacy. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos but fortunately didn't have to return. The doctor wasn’t in but every worker there was dressed like a nurse or doctor and were eager to help. Each one had something to contribute. There were shelves filled with various Chinese medicines behind the counter and examining rooms in the back. The pharmacist made a few suggestions and applied the first treatment. I walked out with a spray to bring down the swelling and pills to take internally. The pills were not the most pleasant tasting (to say the least), and I have to chew five at a time three times a day. I can already see a definite difference. At first I thought it was just wishful thinking, but I can see a slight definition of my ankle bone for the first time since Sunday. Either way, it was an amazing hospital experience with no wait and complete care and concern. And, my worry about the expense was unfounded. It worked out to be around $13 US money including the medicine.
Yesterday morning I taught classes to the 2 and 3 year old students, the youngest ones in the school. They were adorable. Whenever the children see me, they all wave and start saying, “Hello teacher.” I was able to sit in on their Guzheng lesson that each class has weekly. I felt bad when I walked in and they all started waving. Luckily it was at the end of class. After they left, I got my own brief lesson and shared the mountain dulcimer and limberjack with the two teachers. I had hoped to be exposed to traditional Chinese music while I was here, so it really made my already awesome day.
I was observed by members of the Board of Education and visiting teachers from other areas of China and Taiwan. I have to admit that I was a little nervous with over 20 professional educators sitting in the back watching it once I started, I almost forgot they were there. Some of them looked so grim, I wasn’t sure what they thought until after the classes when they all kept patting me on the back, nodding and saying things I didn’t understand. Then many of them wanted their pictures taken with me. The woman who interprets for me is not really an interpreter and often has to look things up, so I get a very abbreviated version of whatever has been said. And even then, I’m often scratching my head at the translation. Just before lunch, they invited me to their meeting where I sat in a room full of Chinese educators wondering what they were saying. Every once in a while they would all look or someone would gesture toward me and everyone would nod in agreement. I did a lot of smiling. And … I’ve had my picture taken more in these past few days than in the past few years.
After lunch, my friend and I went to one of the local parks, walked around a bit and mostly people-watched. A lot of the men wear uniforms. Some of them look like old army uniforms. There are a lot of gated communities with uniformed guards who open the gates. Some of the guards take their jobs very seriously, standing at attention and saluting while others are very relaxed, smiling and waving as you pass through. There are street sweepers carrying handmade brooms, made from thin branches, that stand around waiting for some trash. We also saw lots of gardeners. We passed by one group of around 10 or 12 workers planting annuals in a strip of public land. I was surprised at the number of people in that small area, and no one seems to rush. They enjoy each other’s company and take breaks when they feel like it. It certainly looks like everyone has some kind of job, and they all take pride in their work.
I have to admit, it’s been a tough adjustment to such a different culture with a huge language barrier, but it’s been well-worth all the discomfort. If they still want me back every year, I’m going to start learning Chinese in earnest. I want so much to be able to speak to the people I meet rather than trying to use my own version of sign language and nod and smile a lot. And, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have some idea of what is being said about me?
I can hardly believe that I’ll be in China in less than a week. This was another opportunity that came out of the blue. Those are my favorites. I feel as though I have been so blessed in my musical life. The only times I have been overseas have been due to an opportunity like this one, a random phone call or email from someone wanting to hire me for an interesting project. And … you know I’ll always say an enthusiastic “yes!”
I’ve been gathering everything I need or want to take with me such as maple syrup gifts for my hosts, a face mask to filter out the severe pollution in the city, an electrical adapter, etc. I’ve met with a few people who grew up in China for some tips on etiquette and more. I have translator and map apps on my phone and downloaded WeChat, the Chinese version of Facebook, which is banned in China. I’m also bringing my mountain dulcimer, limberjack and crankie with me to introduce the school children, teachers and parents to traditional American culture. My sweetie even built me a new crankie that comes apart and folds down flat that I will leave there. Hopefully, they’ll use it on their own, or I will use it again when I return, since they would like me to go back once a year. All in all, I think I’m as ready as I can be except for packing, which I’ll do at the last minute.
I will be posting an online travelogue as best I can while I’m away. You can follow my travels here, but don’t expect anything until around May 12th.
Tillamook County, Oregon
We loved living in Hebo, Oregon with our ever-changing motley crew of intrepid travelers passing through almost daily and our weekly Open Mic gig in Pacific City. Then one day our old friend Clinton arrived with a friend from New Jersey. They couldn’t have come on a better day. Jessie’s elementary school was less than a block away with its little playground, so we went there often. This particular day, I set Justin at the top of the tall metal slide, as I had done many times before, waiting for him to be settled before going around to the bottom to catch him. This time, he stuck his sneakered feet out against the sides to slow himself down where one of them snagged and flipped him over the side and onto his head on the asphalt surface. I saw him falling and lunged for him, catching the toe of his sneaker as he hit the ground.
He was conscious but dazed, and I knew enough first aid to know that I probably had shouldn’t move him right away, although my first instinct was to scoop him up into my arms immediately. Instead, I kept talking to him, asking if he could see me then asking if he could move at all. He was bleeding but had not yet started crying. I was terrified. A grandfather was also there with his grandchild and came over screaming at me about what a bad mother I was because I had not picked him up yet, but I managed to block him out and focus completely on my injured child. Eventually, he started to cry, rolled himself over and started vomiting, so I picked him up and ran home with Jessie keeping up with me.
When we entered the driveway, Paul met us outside. I was covered in blood and vomit and in shock. He was the next one to start screaming at me. He wanted to know what I had done to his child. At this point, I couldn’t even speak, so I just stared at him. Thankfully, Clinton came out and took Paul aside, allowing me to go inside and formulate our next steps which were to get to a hospital as soon as possible. With Clinton there, we were able to leave Jessie at home. We packed Justin into the car and set off on the half hour ride to Tillamook for the nearest emergency room.
We walked in and waited … and waited … and waited, trying to keep him alert and awake. Once I started making a scene, they finally took us in for an x-ray, they handed me a lead vest to wear but nothing for him. When I questioned them, they explained that they didn’t have a child-sized vest and only had one on site. He needed me to stay with him, so they wanted me to wear it. I immediately took it off and laid it over him. I was not impressed with this place so far. Luckily and miraculously, there was no fracture, but they wanted to keep him overnight for observation. Based on my experiences with them up to this point, there was no way I was leaving him there. Under protest, they instructed me to wake him every hour and ask questions such as “what’s your name, can you tell me your abcs, can you sing a song.” We arrived back home at 11 pm.
It had been a very long day, and I was looking at waking every hour for the rest of the night. During that first hour, I finally changed out of my disgusting clothes and showered. Then I woke him, asking those all-important questions and sat down heavily in our recliner to try to de-stress. As soon as I sat, I heard a very distressed “meow” coming from behind the chair and discovered our cat having difficulties giving birth to her first litter. The first kitten was out but she ignored it, so I removed the sac and rubbed her to consciousness. The same happened with the second and the third. I tried to show her what I was doing, but she wasn’t interested. She was having a hard enough time getting them out. So, I spent the rest of the night delivering kittens and waking my concussed toddler every hour while everyone else slept soundly. In all fairness though, all of the adults did check in occasionally throughout the night.
A few days later, Clinton asked us to house his friend Vernon for the summer. They had hitchhiked across the country together, but Vernon was brutally shy and was becoming a burden. Clinton was certain that they would both have a much better summer apart. Paul was a little apprehensive, but I was also very shy and understood. I also figured that if he experienced all of our craziness upon his arrival and was still willing to stay with us, he might fit right in, and he turned out to be one of our closest friends for a very long time.
Unfortunately, all good things seem to come to an end, and our landlord decided to come back much earlier than originally anticipated. We moved to a tiny trailer in a trailer park in Beaver, Oregon, not far from Hebo, made some new friends and enrolled Jessie in her third school. She was in first grade. One of our neighbors kept telling us that our music reminded her of music she had heard at Caffe Lena in upstate New York and suggested that we relocate there. We had no intention of moving. We liked it where we were but the thought stuck.
Then, one day Jessie came home with two permission slip. The first one was giving permission for “paddling” if necessary. Because I refused to sign it, I was called in for a conference with the principal. He had dealt with hippies before and wanted to assure me that, as long as my child behaved, there was no need to worry. The second form was giving permission for Jessie to join “The Good News Club” which would be meeting during school hours. Not knowing what it was, and liking the name, I signed that one. It wasn’t until she started bringing home bible tracts that I realized what the good news really was. Paul lost another job at that time, and we received a large tax return. My parents had also recently moved to upstate New York so, remembering the suggestion of our neighbor, we started packing for the journey east that felt like it took a lifetime.