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?