Now that I’ve been home for two weeks, I’m beginning to think more about my trip – what was hard and what was inspiring. This will be my last China post. Next week, I'll return to my memoirs.
The adjustment this radically different culture was harder than I thought it would be in expected and unexpected ways. I was prepared for the squatting toilets and lack of paper products, including napkins, toilet paper and paper towels. Ironically, even though my arthritic knees protested strongly during the trip, it was totally manageable on my last day. You don’t really need to know any details of my struggles and adjustment, but it was interesting that being forced to really exercise my knees actually helped heal my normally protesting joints making me decide to add squats to my normal stretching routine.
I think the hardest adjustment for me was the hard beds and very thin pillows. The bed we slept on for most of our stay felt like a cross between a box spring and sleeping on the floor. I took to referring to it as my “plywood bed.” With my arthritis and very bony body, I finally layered all of my clothes as well as extra quilts that were in the room underneath myself, using my raincoat as a prop for my pillow and managed to mostly sleep through the night. After a good stretching session, most of the aches and pains that plagued me during the night were dispelled. If I go back, I am wrapping my dulcimer in memory foam. 😏
I had been told in advance that we might be stared at. What I wasn’t prepared for was the intensity of those stares with a seriousness that bordered on aggressive scowling. It took me a little while to realize that it wasn’t aggressiveness or anger but just part of the culture. For example, during my teaching at both schools, many of the teachers, administrators and parents had that same look. At first, I worried that they were displeased with my work. It caused me to be more nervous than usual and falter slightly. Although it threw me at first, I’ve done enough performing in those types of situations where I’ve even been heckled during gigs that I was able to ignore it and just do my job. After each class or presentation, those same scowlers raved about how wonderful it was and how much they were learning, including the Board of Education members who visited one morning. I was able to apply that to the stares I got out on the streets as well.
I also had my picture taken more than any other time in my life. All of the teachers wanted photos with their classes, various administrators, the visiting teachers from around the region and Board of Education members, even random strangers on the street wanted photos taken with me. I inadvertently denied one man who asked for my photo only because I didn’t understand what he was saying. I shook my head saying, “I don’t understand.” He took it to mean that I was saying no to having my picture taken. After he disappeared, my friend explained what he was requesting.
Another thing that took me by surprise, but shouldn’t have, was the language difficulty. I was led to believe that most of the workers in the cafes, restaurants, stores and hotels in the city of Beijing would speak English and that most of the signage would be in both English and Chinese. The first issue was that I wasn’t staying in Beijing as I had originally been told. Secondly, although I have a translating app for my phone, it only translates one way. If the other person I was trying to communicate with didn’t also have access to translation, which was often the case, I couldn’t understand their reply. However, although a little cumbersome, it was very helpful for having conversations when they did have it. I also did a lot of nodding and smiling and used a lot of hand motions and facial expressions to get by. If it looks like I will be going back, I plan to take a class to be able to at least understand some simple but important phrases.
In addition to the sound of the language, Chinese has its own characters that look totally unfamiliar to me. When I visited Europe, even when I didn’t speak the language, the letters were familiar enough that I could often guess or at least get some kind of idea what the signs said. This was not true in China. It was even a little disconcerting when I returned home and, driving from Hartford, I noticed the signs in English and was taken aback for a moment. It was also odd hearing mostly English being spoken around me in Toronto and Hartford. I’d gotten used to seeing and hearing Chinese in only two short weeks.
One of two other things that I was ready for but didn’t encounter was a lot of pushing and shoving. I was told that because of the large population, the Chinese people don’t have the same concept of personal space. In my short two-week stay there, if someone bumped into me, they always excused themselves, or at least it sounded like that. I was also ready for a lot of talking that sounded like anger but didn’t hear that either. When my friend and I commented on the absence of emergency sirens, we were told that “the Chinese people like peacefulness.” It certainly seemed that way to me. The other thing I expected was a huge amount of pollution. I had bought myself a filtered mask and only used it once. When we saw water trucks on the roads spraying a fine mist, I thought at first that they must be spraying the trees with some kind of pesticide and was able to ask a new Chinese friend. It turns out that they spray water to keep the polluting particles from blowing around. It also kept things fresh on those very hot and dry days.
The traffic here took a little adjustment. At least away from the city, there are no stop signs and traffic lights only at the main intersections. The traffic weaves through everything with bicycles, scooters, cars and pedestrians all part of the same intricate tapestry. On our arrival, we were picked up at the airport by the school’s bus driver. It was during rush hour, and he and others sometimes created two lanes where the road was marked for one, drove on the shoulder to pass slower cars and even crossed the double yellow line, driving on the wrong side to pass. At first, I was very taken aback by this seemingly erratic driving until I realized that everyone else drove the same way. And, although I was told by one of the Chinese teachers that there were many accidents, I only saw one very minor fender-bender and one other rear end accident with no injuries. Both of these were on the highway during rush hour in Beijing. The other interesting thing about the traffic was the use of their horns to alert other vehicles and pedestrians of their presence. I didn’t hear them being used in anger the way we hear them at home, and it wasn’t blaring, just a short toot.
The pedestrians all follow the crosswalk lights religiously. I never saw anyone jaywalk, and both the crosswalks and the traffic lights have a lighted timer letting you know exactly how much time you have to make it across the street, through the light or how much time until the light changes. I never encountered anyone running red lights or racing across the road which I attributed that to those numbered lights. My experience was that of a very cooperative traffic and pedestrian flow.
The most inspiring thing I encountered was the overwhelming sense of respect everywhere I went. As a teacher and an elder, I was probably awarded more respect than some others, but I saw it everywhere. The Chinese people always made sure I had a seat, held my arm every time I got in or out of a vehicle and insisted on carrying everything for me. My first full day in China, I was taken to a children’s park and then the zoo. It was a Sunday afternoon (International Mother’s Day) and both places were filled with children and their adults, both parents and grandparents. I never saw a single adult raise their voice or talk harshly to a child. I also never saw a child misbehave. In the schools, there were a couple of kids who I could see were pretty spirited, but they did what they were asked to do without question. I’m sure there are many negatives to this too but, as a teacher, it was incredibly refreshing.
At first, I thought I’d had enough and wouldn’t necessarily want to return, though I did make friends there. Now, that the brutal plane travel is behind me, and I’m recovered from it all, I think that I would like to go again. One of the friends I made invited to go to her village in the southwestern part of the country to see the countryside. That was something I wasn’t able to do this trip, so that is very appealing. And, she is a musician offering to teach me one of their traditional instruments. How could I possibly say no to that? Anyway, I rarely say no to offered opportunities.
I also felt safe everywhere I went. There were cameras everywhere, security checks and gated communities with guards posted at the gates. I know that the government is very repressive and many of the people unhappy and dissatisfied. As a visitor though, it was a huge relief to never be worried no matter what time of the day or night I went out. No one locked up their bikes or scooters. If a crime is committed in China, there is an incredibly harsh punishment. I'm sure that fear as well as respect plays a part in my sense of safety but, as an older woman, it was a nice change for me.
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.