Thursday, September 2, 2010
Summer 2010: In our skin….
It’s been three years since our family has been in China together, as a family, and three years since my daughters have been in the land of their birth. Jason and I have been back a total of five times (2+3), separately, since we moved to Rutledge, PA, in July 2007. Each trip we have yearned to be there as a family. We, as parents, still haven’t quite settled into our lush green storybook lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia and have missed the way we felt together as a family, fleet of foot but also on edge, straddling two cultures in an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalized Beijing. But our daughters, perhaps more resilient and more fluid in their identities than their sentimental parents, have woken, daily, wondrously, into their Pennsylvania present. Here they bounce and trounce on backyard trampolines, sell lemonade to passers-by from makeshift stands under generous old trees. They race around the block on bikes, straight-backed and breathless, and then play dress-up in the attic, marveling through the window at birds nesting in our home’s old Victorian eaves. Sometimes I wonder if they remember China at all—they were ages three and six when we left. But when I go fishing, nostalgic, for their memories, they narrate snippets so odd and unfamiliar that I’m sure I’ve fished too far—that what they have retrieved is something from another place and time altogether. Asked about our sunroom in Beijing, they conjure up, in stunning detail, the landscape of the “Kids Club” at the Hilton where we once stayed in Jaipur, India, and the brilliant weave of the blanket where they sat upon an elephant’s back, long ago, when they visited their cousins in Delhi. They remember their ayi, but swear she spoke English. When asked if they remember her delicious dumplings and noodle soup, they recall instead the Nestle ice cream bars she bought them, surreptitiously, nearly every afternoon while Mommy worked on her dissertation, deeply immersed in 1930s China.
So we’ve wondered, time and time again, what it would be like to return to Beijing with our girls. Would our daughters finally remember who we were together as a family then? Would loose pieces inside of them rattle about and somehow, miraculously, click into place, adjusting their skeletons and stretching their skin? But no, of course, a return to one’s homeland is never really a return, but a new excursion. My girls traveled with me this summer, back to China for five weeks where we collected more loose pieces, adjusted our skeletons, stretched our skin. I had the privilege of co-directing a Chinese language, cultural and leadership-training institute called YingHua with a brilliant and inspiring partner named Bonnie (“Liao Laoshi”—Teacher Liao). In this capacity, I was “Mei Laoshi” (Teacher Mei), an identity and persona I rarely experience in my English-speaking world outside of China. In this context, my oldest daughter, Feifei, was a student participant in the social world of other student participants, most of whose ties with China are as deep and complex as her own. And my youngest daughter, Zhouzhou, alternated between being tightly bound to me, her mama (as she periodically regressed to the developmental stage she left behind three years ago in China) and being loose and bold on the streets of Beijing, bravely trailblazing with her Mandarin-speaking ayi in tow (who, once again, fed her daily doses of Nestle ice cream!). Jason joined us for the last week of the program, and then we traveled for a vacation week together as a family.
What follows are more pieces collected from our days as our China-selves. Most take the form of daily updates sent to the parents of program participants, chronically the intense and exhilarating experience of the program. Some take the form of emails I sent to my family and close friends, annotations to the daily updates with more specific snippets of the girls experience there. And lastly there are blog entries for our family trip to Qingdao, the four of us, China-selves and all, comfortably together again, at home in our skin.
Today Jazz and I woke with the expectation that we would visit another site on Peggy’s list of must-sees: Lao Shan Mountain. Consultation with the online Qingdao guide last night had me very excited for this outing. Lao Shan reaches 3,500 feet or so above sea level (meager by CA standards, but much higher than anything near our current home in PA). The cliffs hug the sea, and the misty peaks have been considered a sacred home of immortals and gods since ancient times. There are three routes up this mountain, and its two lines of cable cars might work to bribe our two shorter-legged hikers if they were to start to wilt towards the summit. The mountain is dotted with teahouses and Taoist temples and crops of granite and dense forests reportedly inhabited by fairies. I was intrigued.
We approached the subject delicately with our wee-est one. My last hike with ZZ, at a remote site of the Great Wall a week ago outside of Huairou, had involved bush-whacking, through thorned brush, swarms of bees and oversized mosquitoes, near-dehydration under a blazing sun, and ZZ wailing and weeping that she hates this family and never wants to go on a hike ever, EVER again. We weren’t quite sure the promise of imagined fairies and a cable car ride would be enough of a sell. When our first suggestion that we had a special outing to a magical mountain planned for the day was met with harmonized groans by both girls we backed down. Take two: Underwater World, anyone?
But first, brunch at the best Chinese breakfast bar ever. We indulged in eggs, potatoes, fruit, homemade yogurt, great pieces of seeded bread and slices of hard cheese, pain au chocolat, and of course, fresh pineapple slices dipped at the chocolate fountain. Heaven. Lingering over our bottomless cups of steaming hot coffee, we were joined by two UPS pilots I had met over by the egg station. One was wearing a Padres t-shirt, which was my original reason for having engaged him in conversation. After preliminary introductions, it wasn’t long before we learned that he and his wife had been paper-ready for a China adoption, but the wait had become so long that they eventually pulled their file. He sweetly shared that he got pangs watching us with our daughters. I was happy to hear that he does have an eight-year-old boy at home, but I have no idea if he is a recent addition to their family or if they had been seeking to add to their family with a second child. In either case, the honest pain in his eyes of this lost adoption was poignant to me and I am holding the miracle of our family very close to my heart today. We invited him and his co-pilot to join us at our table and there, with prodding questions from ZZ, who leaves no stone unturned, we were brought into the fascinating world of piloting cargo planes, traversing the world at rapid speeds to satisfy the modern world’s demands for time and treasure.
When we finally exited the Crowne Plaza (called the “King Crown” by ZZ!) it was close to 11:00 AM. A spectacular day: bright, cloudless blue skies and a brilliant sun with cooling ocean breezes. We wound our way along the shoreline in a cab, noting all the restaurants, parks, and beaches along the way that might make appealing evening outings, before arriving at our seaside destination.
Underwater World (Qīngdǎo Hǎidǐ Shìjiè 青岛海底世界) was originally a public aquarium built by Germans during the 1930s, but has been expanded and modernized since to include a series of indoor tank exhibits, a hall with skeletons of sea mammals, a museum with samples of fossils and specimens of fish, a laboratory, and an underwater tunnel where one gets a 360-degree view of sea life. The first set of exhibits can be accessed with a 40 yuan ticket; the underwater tunnel (the best part of the exhibit) required a 120 yuan ticket. We purchased the entire 120 yuan package.
The location itself is spectacular, reminiscent for me of La Jolla, with cliffs overhanging caves and tide pools, and paths winding above the water. When we first arrived, we settled in at a stone table above the water and the girls drank coconut milk sipped from straws inserted into a coconut itself (a first for them). We then ambled into the cooler indoors of the exhibits, and the girls migrated from tank to tank and chamber to chamber, quietly settling into the relaxing world of darting fish in water.
And then we entered the cavernous tunnel, and the tanks that followed. What a treat! In the underworld globe itself we saw sharks of all sizes, enormous sea turtles and happy-faced stingrays. Circling around the various tanks we saw surgeonfish, triggerfish, batfish, squirrelfish, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish! At one point, the girls spontaneously got out their notebooks and began, in a habit acquired from our reflection exercises at summer camp, to record some of their observations. Carefully they penned in “sea angels” (tiny!), “giant spider crab” (the largest crustacean on the planet, which takes 36 hours to molt, 2 or 3 times a year!), “electric eel”, “flashlight fish” (very cool, like our Rutledge fireflies, except under water), and “sea horses” (with their unbelievably sweet and gentle faces). What we missed today in mountain magic we made up for under the sea.
Lunch at a terrific seaside shack of a restaurant, then a slow amble along the shore and down to Bathing Beach Number One, where ZZ plopped herself into the sand and fussed about wanting to stay at the beach. It was there, scanning the cove and realizing there were far fewer people here and strikingly less algae, that we planned our next day’s outing: A trip to Bathing Beach No. 1, complete with a table and umbrella rental. Back at the hotel, Jazz and I took turns working out in the five star fitness room and Jazz swam with the girls in the five star indoor pool. There were also showers and baths in our still palatial bathroom, before we headed for dinner seaside: we told the cabbie to take us to May Fourth Square (another Peggy recommendation). We had passed by there on the way back from the aquarium and spotted a good-looking Qingdao cuisine restaurant we wanted to try.
But first, a night market on the pier. The girls have never seen anything like this before. All kinds of local goods and crafts were being sold (pearls, gems stones, shells, medicines from herbs found in local mountains), as well as typical tourist junk (plastic shells, beaded purses, necklaces that glow in the dark, fake pearls and fake gem stones). After a bit of parental debate, we settled on giving each girl ten yuan to bargain with and spend at will. The girls settled on the tourist-ware: FF got a key chain, ZZ got a ring, and both girls got these strange squeezable plastic bulb animal toys that were a hit with the YingHua students the last two days of camp. The sea breezes and ocean sounds felt so therapeutic as we strolled along that I wasn’t the least bit annoyed by the glittery kitsch that had landed in the hands of my daughters J.
Dinner at the five-lantern Qīngdǎo Càiguǎn (青岛菜馆) was amazing! We ordered food upon entering the lobby, searching for dishes along a table of placards with pictures of the menu items (a Qingdao thing?), before we were seated at a large round table. Our meal included appetizers of candied walnuts (sprinkled with roasted sesame seeds) and fried peanuts. The meal itself included: a tofu and bamboo dish; a cold dish of soybeans and marinated greens (delicious!); a dish of wild mushrooms, sprouts, julienne-cut carrots spiced up with ginger and mustard (yum!), a tofu soup with rice noodles and bean sprouts, and two bottles of Qingdao lager beer (a disappointment). After dinner, we strolled to a nearby Starbucks where Jazz was happy to find a Qingdao city mug, then home in time for Jazz to get on a business call and an interview.
Back at the King Crown, ZZ fell asleep immediately, but FF and I snuggled up to our current novel, reserved for this trip: Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant. This is, perhaps, one of the finest novels we have read aloud together in awhile. It is an impossibly beautiful story about the power of hope, the mystery of magic and the redemptive joy of families being formed under unlikely circumstances. It felt like a fitting end to the delightfully unexpected arc of our day.
July 26, 2010
We had no idea what to expect from a vacation in the Qingdao. We failed miserably to book tickets to our dream destination—Xiahe, in Gansu province—home of the Labrang Monastery, one of the six most important pilgrimage sites for Tibetan Buddhists of the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa sect. It was hard to let go of our vision of spending a few days with the girls in Tibetan grasslands, surrounded by crimson robes, yak butter lamps, fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels. We had imagined a combination of adventure and spiritual renewal: hikes up the hills that rise around the monastic town itself, passing nomad encampments and ruddy-cheeked children, skipping through clear streams and herds of brightly decorated yaks; rising before dawn to sit in the shadows of prayer halls, watching and listening to the monks, seated on row after row of beautiful carpets chanting their morning prayers; walking a full circuit of the kora with Tibetan pilgrims, as the girls joined us spinning prayer wheels, sending blessings and good wishes out to all sentient beings. But there is a bike race going through nearby Qinghai province and it is the peak of the summer travel season. Tickets to our own personal Shangrila just weren’t to be found.
Rebounding from our disappointment, we scrambled for the first available and reasonably affordable tickets we could find. Our preferred general travel guide for China is still Lonely Planet, but our old dog-eared copy remains collecting dust on one of our bookshelves back in Rutledge, PA, along with our Chinese driver’s licenses that would have permitted us to rent a car. So we considered destinations from memory, and came up with a few options: we could give ourselves a bit of a mountain retreat just outside of Beijing in a nóngjiāyuàn’r (but how to get there without a rental car?); we could take an overnight train to Shanghai and stay at the Astor House near the Bund (but too crazy and expensive with the Expo in progress?); we could fly or train it to Hangzhou to see our friend, Si Meng and hang out at West Lake (but, alas, no tickets available there). On a lark, we thought of Qingdao. None of us have ever been there before, despite the fact that I teach about it every year when discussing the Treaty of Versailles and the May Fourth Movement with my Chinese history students. Historically, it’s important as a former German colony (hence Tsingtao beer, brewed in the city). It’s a port city (have we ever been to a port city we didn’t love?) with bathing beaches and bāozi and beer. And there were train tickets available: 275 yuan per ticket, per way, on a modern fast-moving rail. After fewer than six hours comfortably passing through China’s lush fields and a few scattered industrial towns (and occasionally topping 150 miles per hour) we would arrive at the Yellow Sea. Jazz booked our tickets by phone from Huairou and our ticket woman, Xiao Geng, dispatched a messenger to deliver them to the Yong’an Hotel in Beijing.
I don’t think I could imagine two happier children than our girls prancing through the modern Beijing South station, rolly backpacks in tow, on the way to Platform 18 and the train bound for Qingdao. They love the beach and have enough experience with spectacular beaches to qualify as connoisseurs. Plus, this was their first time alone together with both Mommy and Daddy for weeks and they were basking in our undivided attention and in the freedom and simplicity of being our small unit together, free of the cares of others and relatively fleet of foot.
If you want to get a visceral, one-shot sense of how rapidly and fantastically China has been changing, you need look no further than Beijing South station. I had never been to the old station, but Jazz had, and he couldn’t believe what he saw. He had remembered a small, old-school Chinese train station from a visit in January 1993, when he had caught a train out to Qīng Lóng Qiáo station to climb a scarcely-known section of the Great Wall. The new station is a perfect example of the slick, grand, clean and smooth architectural style that has been dominating the construction of China’s airports and train stations for around a decade now. No resemblance whatsoever to the squat, squalid structure of almost two decades ago. From this station dozens of trains depart each day for Tianjin, surpassing 200 miles per hour. People form neat queues when purchasing tickets and boarding. Clean shops and cafes rim the gigantic waiting hall. An utterly different world, in the blink of an eye.
The train ride was everything we had anticipated: gentle, relaxing, soporifically rocking. We sat in pairs of seats, split across an aisle. Jazz and FF worked through multiple-digit addition and subtraction problems, adding and subtracting totals into the billions, using the methods we learned in school as kids (carrying over and borrowing!), which Jazz is convinced is more efficient and accurate than the method FF learned in school using “Everyday Math.” ZZ and I read The Persian Cinderella, The Seven Chinese Sisters and Curious George no fewer than three times in a row, back to back, before ZZ finally dozed off and I entered a blissful world of iPod and passing countryside.
By the time we arrived in Qingdao it was 9:40 pm. After a great deal of haggling with taxi drivers we were able to finally hop into a cab with a driver who agreed to use the meter. The cab haggling felt very old-school; we haven’t had to do that for a cab in China in years and the girls were transfixed watching us throughout the playfully heated exchanges. Once we procured our cab, we clamored in as I issued warnings to the girls to keep their well-traveled shoes off the pristine white cloth-covered seats. FF sat in the center of the back seat, eyes fixed on the meter, skeptically studying every turn of the digits, determined to prevent us from getting ripped off! No worries, the fare was fair: a meager 35 yuan for our 25- minute ride.
The girls were in awe when we pulled up to our hotel: the five-star Crowne Plaza, which towers above the business district. I don’t think they have stayed in a place like this since we were in the White Swan in Guangzhou, processing ZZ’s visa after her adoption. We were a bit nervous about our reservations (we booked a discounted rate on Expedia), but everything was in order. The girls oohed and aahed over the statues, fountain, and 20-foot-high chandelier in the lobby while Jazz registered us and obtained our room cards: twenty-second floor! One look around the suite we’d be staying in for the next four days was all it took for the girls to unanimously declare: “This is the BEST vacation EVER!” After a bath in the palatial tub and a bit of territory-claiming and fort building-along the panoramic window sills, the girls were fast asleep by 11:30 pm.
There is nothing like a 5-star brunch when staying in China. We are avowed believers in a big and balanced breakfast, and this one did not disappoint. The presence of a chocolate fountain where one can dip one’s fruit using long silver forks catapults this particular brunch to the top of our list of favorite Chinese breakfast destinations. On our way back to our room to change into swimsuits, ZZ managed to drag me into the hotel’s diamond store. I apologized in Chinese to the saleswoman immediately upon entry, “Sorry, we’re not going to buy anything, but my daughter is going to imagine a world in which she might buy EVERYTHING and is going to be asking you a lot of questions!” The woman laughed, and then quickly shifted into fluent English, delighting ZZ who has been tiring of not understanding conversations about her! The saleswoman’s name is “Peggy” (although, much to ZZ’s amusement, she pronounced it something like “Piggy”). Peggy is a Qingdao local, and in the ten minutes we stood in her store she managed to write down five “must see” destinations while patiently answering ZZ’s rock-related questions. On her list was “Stone Old Man Beach” (Shílǎorén yùchǎng), which she explained was less crowded and more enjoyable than the more popular Bathing Beach Number One. After a brief detour to the neighboring department store, Jussco, to purchase three pails, three shovels, and four large towels, we were on our way to Stone Old Man Beach.
In all of my beach-going, I have never seen anything like this beach. As soon as we stepped out of the cab I was hit with familiar smells and sensory stimuli: the salty air, a warm and caressing breeze, the smell of fried foods, and the distant crashing of waves. I was immediately transported back to San Diego, my closest frame of reference for water and warmth, and I imagined myself standing next to the Star of India, the smell of fried clams from Anthony’s grill beckoning both locals and tourists. But this was not San Diego. As we approached the beach I could see a large, bright green blanket floating atop the slate grey of the Yellow Sea. I remembered a subject line I had read in an online search for all things pertaining to Qingdao: “large mass of algae approaching Qingdao.” This was a report from last winter, and I had simply disregarded it as old information in our quest for a vacation location. Clearly it was still pertinent.
But the girls and Jazz were completely undeterred by this blanket of green, and they quickly descended from the boardwalk to the beach below, settling on a spot a bit to the north. The beach was more dirt than sand and the place was CROWDED. After a bit of an inward battle I resolved I was going to learn to relax Chinese style, so after disrobing (noting that I was clearly the most scantily clad woman on the beach—a black tankini among bathing dresses!) and settling myself onto my green towel, I began to marvel at the magic that sand and water and sun can work on the human spirit. Everywhere around me, people were relaxing and enjoying themselves. I don’t think I’ve seen so many people simultaneously having such a good time since Jazz and I went to the ice festival in Harbin years ago, pre-kids. There were plastic tables and umbrellas for rent, and families clustered around these, eating lunches out of metal tins and plastic takeout containers, playing animated games of cards and drinking from large bottles of Tsingtao beer. There were also tents for rent and inflatable inner tubes for purchase in animal themes and pastel colors. These were being used, not just by children, but by adults who bobbed side-by-side in the algae-sea holding hands or splashing one another, gossamer veils of green sticking to their shoulders and hair. It occurred to Jazz and me that we have never seen so many Chinese willfully becoming “dirty”. We sat on towels, but many of our neighbors sat directly in the hot dirt-sand, burrowing out hollows of warmth to rest their limbs, grabbing handfuls of the stuff to rub onto their arms, legs, and chests. It struck me that there must be a perceived therapeutic or beautifying value to the sand that extended beyond my assumption that it is exfoliating.
The girls did what they do at every beach they have frequented: they built moats and castles; they ferried bucket after bucket of sea water to fill swimming holes they carved out deep in the sand; they darted boldy towards the rising face of the shore’s breaking waves, then squealed and ran landward, pursued by white caps and foam. Then they begged me to take them out to deeper waters, past the shore break, where they might dive under waves and float on their backs, rising with the swells. I tried to push aside my aversion to the bright green algae and entered the water with them, marveling at how soft and fine and utterly un-kelp-like this lacey sea algae was to the touch. It was actually pleasant against the skin, like a thin and cool silk shirt. Diving into deeper waters, it simply slipped away, pulled towards the shore on the crests of waves. We swam together in these open waters for quite a while, outside the reach of the crowds of bathers, comfortable in these chiller waters.
Back on land, I continued to watch the scene around me as Jazz took off for a run and to forage for food, and the girls once again played tag with waves closer to shore. There were a good number of naked children—boys and girls—older than you would find at most American beaches (even in San Francisco!). There were a fair number of sunburned men bare-chested, carrying man-purses, and women walking in floral dresses, carrying high-heeled shoes and fancy handbags. Twice strangers with cameras approached me, who asked me if I would pose with them for a photo. One set was a young couple from Fujian; the other was a young daughter and her father from Anhui. I tried to give my best Hollywood smile with my sunglasses and black tankini, while hopping from foot to foot in the hot sand.
I couldn’t get over the child-like play of the adults around me. Many held umbrellas to shelter themselves from the sun. There were some adults who sat at the shore where the shallow water meets the firmer sand, letting the water lap around their buttocks and then recede as I have seen many a baggy-diapered toddler do stateside. At one point, a grown woman in a dress stopped in front of my towel and sat down and began playing with ZZ’s sand castle and moat, picking up the shovel that served as a draw bridge and opening the side of the moat to build a small pool. It was the kind of gesture I would expect from an American toddler who had not yet been socialized not to touch other children’s toys and projects without first asking. The woman didn’t look up at me the whole time she was playing—it was as if ownership of the sand toys or the rights of the creator simply did not occur to her. We were in a playground and everything was a toy. I thought of our YingHua students sharing rooms with their Chinese roommates, annoyed with the way in which some of the Chinese students would touch or play with their things without asking. Having already processed this a week ago with our students helped me to resist the urge to protect my daughter’s creation from this woman’s poking with her shovel. And as it turned out, ZZ never returned to her castle until it was time to pack up and leave after a quickly rising tide nearly chased us all off the beach.
Back at the hotel, we took five-star showers and baths in our cavernous commode and then headed out for dinner. We cabbed it to an Indian restaurant we had read about in an online Qingdao guide, inspired by Muslim (Uighur) naan Jazz had found on his beach food forage. We weren’t disappointed. Outside of Delhi, some of our best Indian food we’ve ever eaten has been cooked by Indian chefs in China. The restaurant was nestled between winding roads and back alleys near our hotel and we opted to walk back after dinner, in a quest for ice cream. I kept my eyes out for a vendor with a Walls freezer where I knew I would most likely find one of my two favorite ice creams sold in China: either the Magnum or the kě’àiduō. Jazz and the girls were less patient (but perhaps more prudent?) and settled on Chinese ice cream early in our stroll. It was late, but I forced myself to slow down, walking more leisurely than I would normally walk on the darkened backstreets of an American city. There are no crimson robes here, no prayer wheels, and we’re not staying in the rustic Tara Guesthouse in Xiahe. Yet this is striking me as plenty full of adventure and an opportunity to slow down and welcome relaxation, and with it, the Spirit.
Today was bittersweet, as it brought our departure from Huairou and your children's week with their Dong Dong roomates, turned friends.
Beijing summer days are frequently not only brutally hot, but oppressively humid. I'm not talking the delightful sultriness of a warm summer evening. I'm talking hot, heavy, wet blanket dropped on your head as you exit the air-conditioned confines of the indoors. Today was one of those days.
Thankfully our morning gathering was indoors. On the agenda: closing ceremony. First, students were given a choice of one of three items to decorate: a canvas bag, a T-shirt, or a fan. They were then given markers and paints for the actual decorating, along with a model of how to draw Peking Opera masks, should they want to go that route. It was so sweet walking around the room and seeing all these "big kids" engaged wholeheartedly in artistic creation, putting their hearts into this last "task" of the week. They and their Dong Dong counterparts clearly genuinely enjoyed the "work"; you will soon see the fruits of their labors.
After a brief potty break was the "party" — in quotation marks because Chinese parties have a specific structure that is quite distinct from what Americans tend to think of as a party. Essentially a party is a string of performances: dance, song, acrobatics...whatever. A free sharing of talents. And boy did your kids perform! Songs and dances galore. The Dong Dong kids certainly held up their end as well. But without question the crowd favorite was Benoit's showstopper. He began by walking on his hands all the way across the floor, to where his Chinese yo-yo awaited him. He proceeded to dazzle the crowd with amazing trick after amazing trick. Oohs and aahs issued forth from the stunned crowd. Each time we thought he couldn't possibly top himself, he did. After taking a bow, as a final flourish on the way back to his seat he did a one-handed cartwheel. We all knew we had witnessed something very, very special.
Once the party was done it was time for another "party" — this one of the autograph kind, as YingHua and Dong Dong students proudly circulated their handiwork for signing by their cohort.
Then, lunch. A bounty of no fewer than eight dishes, the centerpiece of which was ròubǐng (肉饼), a Beijing specialty and a YingHua favorite: crispy bread-like pancakey dough layered with ground pork.
Then, the moment of truth: goodbye. The heat of the day in full effect, your children lugged their heavy bags out to the bus, where they parted with their Dong Dong friends. Sweetness all around.
Back to Beijing...but not quite yet! First, an encore visit with Yao Laoshi, the "puzzle man". Or, as he prefers to be called, "Puzzle Yao, like Yao Ming. Anyone can be a 'puzzle man', but there's only one 'Puzzle Yao'." What made this visit extra special was that he welcomed us into his home, literally just down the road from Deng Shan, where we had been staying. His wife and sister and great niece graciously hosted us for 30 minutes of puzzle madness. With his characteristic generosity and faith, he allowed the students to rummage freely through his glass cabinets, filled with mind-bending puzzles of all kinds. Most everything in his house is a puzzle, or at least looks like a puzzle — down to a couple of the chairs in the living room. As he instructed us on how to solve various puzzles, I noticed that even his shirt depicted a puzzle. We all feel truly blessed to have had so many wonderful interactions with this one-of-a-kind man.
Then, for real, back to Beijing and the cozy confines of "home" — the Yong'An Hotel. We all unpacked and unwound for an hour or so before meeting for dinner. We walked to the zhou (porridge) restaurant visited previously, again with each student given a budget of 25 yuan to work with. We all did well with our money.
A quick walk back to the hotel, and an intimate round of reflection closed the day.
Tomorrow morning, early, we're off to Beijing South Railway Station for the bullet train to Tianjin. The 70-mile ride we'll cover in under 30 minutes. Should be fun!
It's all wrapping up so quickly. Hard to believe these four amazing weeks are coming to a close so soon...
Jason Patent (Pei Laoshi)
Today we had an action-packed day outdoors. We started our day with breakfast at 7:30 in the mountaineering training center’s cafeteria, where we served ourselves buffet-style from an assortment of traditional Chinese breakfast items: steamed vegetables, rolls stuffed with meat, mantou, hard boiled eggs, pickled vegetables, fried rice, congee or soup noodles. The transition to exclusively Chinese breakfasts has been a difficult one for a few of our campers, who grew accustomed to more selections, including more Western-style dishes, at the Yong’an Hotel. But being a training center for the nation’s athletes, the food at every meal is very nutritious and delicious.
In the morning, students were divided into two groups to rotate between two different activities. The first activity was a trust walk, where YingHua students were paired with their Dongdong roommate partners. One camper was blindfolded and was led by their partner, who could use their eyes and hand to guide, but could not speak. They proceeded in lines, under the guidance of the Dongdong and YingHua counselors and teachers, leading each other over and around obstacles. It was interesting to observe just how difficult it was for some students to trust their leaders, as well as how difficult it can be to lead another. Students also had an opportunity to consider different modes of communication that can occur between two people besides verbal communication. And finally, ultimately, it seemed to be a good bonding experience for our roommate pairs.
The second activity was rock-climbing instruction by the National Mountaineering Training Center guides. Your children had an opportunity to climb on a high training wall, right next to the national team that was training on an adjacent wall. The team has just returned from an international competition in Italy and is off again in a few days for competitions in Qingdao and Xi’ning. They were amazing to watch—members of both the women and men’s teams were climbing and bouldering, and their perseverance and determination were inspiring. These are some incredible athletes.
Your children are inspiring athletes as well. When I arrived on the scene after observing the start of the trust walk, I had just missed Benoit’s reportedly agile climb where he quickly ascended to the top. I watched a number of other campers bravely climb with muscle and determination, and was there to see Jessika be the first of this group to climb to the top, to the cheers of both our campers and the Chinese National Team who were watching during a water break. There was a great deal of camaraderie and support between YingHua and Dongdong students, and the presence of these national athletes made this an especially heightened experience.
After our lunch break, we assembled at 2:00 for a much-anticipated event: laser tag (called “CS” in China, meaning “counter strike”), complete with fatigues, hats, vests, and rifles. We played four rounds in nearly four hours and your children and their teachers had a blast playing in the wooded hills together. It was incredibly hot and humid, but this didn’t keep anyone from staying in the game. There was good sportsmanship all around, and the over-all spirit was one of playfulness and cooperation, despite the fact that we were all supplied with toy weapons. One themes of this week is how to work towards a more peaceful world by improving intercultural understanding and friendships. Though it may seem strange that a game of pretend war played with toy weapons might help us achieve such an outcome, there were valuable lessons learned about cooperation and intercultural play in this exercise. Pei Laoshi and Liao Liaoshi will be addressing some of these lessons in our closing ceremonies tomorrow.
We wrapped our evening up with a game modeled after the old American game show, the Newly Wed game. This is a new room mate game, called “I Know You,” where YingHua and Dongdong roommates were given a questionnaire to use to interview each other with in order to learn more about one another. Questions include things like, “What is your favorite dessert?” “If you could change your name, what would you name yourself?” and “What animal best describes you?” Students were then asked random selections from this list of questions in several rounds of elimination, with the goal of narrowing it down to the pair of roommates has come to know one another best. We had a delightful surprise: about half the pairs could answer all of the questions about one another! They had really taken the time to conduct these interviews and to learn more about one another.
Tonight is our final night in Huairou, and we are very proud of the way your children have handled the challenges of this week. They had grown very close to one another and accustomed to our living conditions and daily rituals in Beijing, and then they were suddenly asked to challenge themselves in ways that made them uncomfortable on multiple fronts. Discomfort often accompanies growth, and I think many of your children may have surprised themselves with how resilient and adaptable they really are, and how much they have learned in our first three weeks that they were able to apply in this very real cross-cultural and cross-linguistic setting.
I have also been struck this week in their increased aptitude functioning and connecting with others in a Mandarin-speaking environment. They were forced to rely on their Mandarin skills in many different situations this week and they are becoming increasingly effective in communicating. You might ask your child what this challenge was like for him or her. You might also ask what their biggest success was in communicating in Mandarin this week, and ask if their first impressions of the Dongdong kids changed at all after coming to know them throughout the week.
All the best from Huairou,
This is Jason, aka Pei Laoshi, with another condensed YingHua update. Moving so fast these days there are very few chances for any of the teachers to sit down and send a truly thorough update!
Tuesday, July 20th dawned cool, but sunny, so the cool part didn't last. After a quick breakfast everyone reported to the paved area outside the "hotel" building for a full day of hot, sunny team-building activities. The mountaineering training center dispatched several coaches to lead the activities.
The clear highlight of the day from the kids' standpoint was the "Wheel of Wind and Fire." The 52 students were divided into two teams, each with an equal balance of Dongdong and YingHua students. Each team was given a big stack of newspapers and a roll of packing tape. The task was to tape newspapers together into one long strip that was to be joined into a loop, inside of which the students would stand like the wheels of a tank, inching forward as they moved the loop around them, like the track that goes around the wheels of the tank. There were many challenges: building a strip that would withstand the strains of being walked on and pulled; everyone walking at the same speed; everyone walking gingerly enough to keep the strip from ripping. And of course the newest challenge of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communication throughout the entire process, from concept to construction to execution.
The two teams took different approaches. One team put the bulk of their tape to use in creating a strong "spine" to the strip; the other team emphasized uniformity throughout the width of the strip. While the strip with the strong spine was decidedly less pretty, it did the job, as did the students "driving" it, and they won the race going away. A lot of smiles and laughter!
An activity in the morning was "Treasurer Hunt" - seeking several targets at the center through the effort and determination of five teams. The students did another activity in the morning blind-folded using non-verbal communications to divide themselves into two teams and then each team using a long rope to form a square.
In the afternoon, they also did a suite of shorter activities requiring group coordination and team spirit.
After dinner the students first did a group reflection and all shared something special in the day. Then they split into Dongdong and YingHua groups. The topic of the evening was exploring the value of mature, responsible "venting" in intercultural relations. I led the conversation with the YingHua students, and Liao Laoshi led the Dongdong conversation. The context was set very carefully and precisely, in order to avoid venting for venting's sake, which could take on a life of its own and lead to more negativity. One key aspect of the conversation was emphasizing that it is human nature to react defensively when confronted with "different" people. It is built into our survival instinct. Thankfully, though, we are human beings, and we have the capacity to rise above our "animal" reactions and strive for genuine cooperation. First, though, we have to deal with the "automatic" reactions, whatever they are, and that beings with identifying what the reactions are. This helped to foster and maintain a spirit of "venting" for the sake of getting along better. It worked very well in both cases, with students offering up not only "complaints," but many heartfelt compliments of the other group.
All the best,
Greetings from Huairou,
Today’s update will be a bit condensed, as we have had a very busy few days wrapping up our first three weeks in Beijing and then moving our program about an hour north of the city, to the more rural location of Huairou. We are staying at China’s National Mountaineering Training Center (Guojia Dengshandui) until Friday morning, then returning to campus at the Yong’an Hotel in Beijing for Friday and Saturday evenings. If you need to reach us in Huairou in the event of emergency, you can call the Mountaineering Center itself at 6964-9501, ext. 100 or ext. 333 or call Dr. Jason Patent’s cell phone, which is a stateside number (1-505-17-1767).
Sunday was our last full day with our Chinese language teachers. We started our day Chinese final exams from 8:45 until about 10:00, followed by a shorter exam testing students on their knowledge from our leadership workshops. The students were focused during their tests and seemed satisfied with their test-taking experience after completion. They had a brief break after the exams before we gathered at 10:30 for our graduation ceremony. Amazingly, the teachers had all the exams graded and handed them out on the spot—such immediate gratification for teachers and students. The teachers said they were very pleased with how well your children did. There were some students who did not get high marks in the conventional sense, but had willingly remained at challenging class levels rather than move down a more comfortable class, and these students especially impressed us. I’m want to give special recognition to Haoran, Benoit, and Jessika for meeting the challenges of the C class even when they felt they were in over their heads.
We had a couple of special guests at our graduation ceremony: Liao Laoshi’s college physics professor, Dr. He, who is also chair of the board of the Yanjing Language Program; and Ms. Shen, the General Secretary of the Zhi Gong Party’s Beijing Committee. Our ceremony included speeches by our guests, expressing appreciation for your children’s efforts, speeches by Liao Laoshi and Wang Laoshi, expressing appreciation for your children’s efforts, speeches (in Chinese!) by Shannon and Benoit, expressing appreciation for your children’s and their teachers’ efforts. I also gave an impromptu speech, expressing my appreciation for you all, as parents, in sending your children on this adventure. I also expressed my hope that the next time they return to China it’s not to make their parents happy and driven by their parents’ reasons, but that this program has helped them develop their own interests in China. We concluded our graduation ceremony with performances by each class: skits, songs, martial arts forms, and morning exercise. Each student was also given three commemorative gifts from their teachers: a set of bookmarks, a set of pins, and a jade chop with his or her Chinese name carved in Chinese.
We walked to lunch—Peking duck and a huge assortment of dishes—at the Peace Harbor (Heping Haiguan) restaurant near campus. Yum. After all this sitting and feasting we were ready to move around a bit. So we walked en-masse to the Beijing Subway (Agricultural Center Station), about a ten minute walk from the Yong’an. Most of the campers have taken subways before, but still, there is nothing like riding the Beijing subway on a Sunday afternoon. We gave a serious talk about subway safety and the importance of sticking together and then we were off: four stops to our transfer point to the Number 10 line at Guomao, then seven more stops to our destination, Xidan. This was a true experiential learning opportunity for your children. I don’t think they will ever look at issues about China’s population growth or China’s development in the same way again. It is mind-boggling to consider how many people move on this impressive mass transit system every day. I am still on awe of the number of lines and stations currently in Beijing, and the fact that passengers now line up before boarding (not the case even as recently as five years ago!)
There is a huge bookstore at Xidan—an entire building actually—and the students had about an hour to browse with their small groups and look for Chinese language books to bring home with them. We then went to a market for some shopping, before dinner at a food court, followed by a return subway ride home (even more crowded then the ride there). The rest of the late evening was spent packing for our move to Huairou. Dr. Jason Patent (Pel Laoshi) who will be heading up the cross-cultural training portion of our program for our remaining week also joined us in the evening.
We arrived in Huairou around 11:00 Monday morning and were greeted by our partners who run the Dong Dong Summer Camp program for Chinese children and the guides from the National Mountaineering Training Center. This week the students will be putting into practice many of the language and leadership skills that they have been developing our first three weeks together. YingHua students and Dong Dong students room together, four students per room, and work together in teams doing a number of exercises and activities designed to help them learn more about cooperation, teamwork and leadership. We will also be doing debriefs after these exercises to help participants process their experiences.
The Chinese mountaineering guides who are working with us are enthusiastic young people who are really committed to fostering team-building and leadership skills in your children. The theme that ran through all the activities of the first day was communication, and the activities led by the guides have included: a puzzle contest which encouraged multiple small groups to communicate with one another; and a rope obstacle course, where teams had to move team members through openings in the net without touching the rope itself. Some of our YingHua students are older than most of the Dong Dong participants, so the challenges in communication were not only linguistic and cultural, but also related to mixed-age leadership. A few our students really shone in their leadership of these activities, including Vicky S. and Jessika whose Chinese language skills and patience with the younger participants helped greatly in creating a good group experience.
After dinner in the cafeteria, Pei Laoshi taught a lesson on the importance of communication in achieving the outcomes in today’s exercises and challenged the students to learn more about communicating, not just cross-linguistically, but cross-culturally. We concluded the evening with a large group reflection of our YingHua students and Chinese students.
Best from Huairou,
About this photo. Feifei and Zhouzhou are both "littles" here compared to the other kids. At times they are totally integrated with the bigger ones (as you may have gleaned from some of the photos!), but other times our younger set really enjoys acting their ages together. This is a terrific foursome: FF, Victor (8), Rebecca (9), and ZZ. Some wackiness around dinner tonight, as they tried to impress me with their various tricks and talents!
Today was our much-anticipated trip to the Summer Palace. As you know, the students have been regularly reading the stories from Chinese classics depicted in the paintings on the Long Corridor that runs along Kunming Lake. In addition to daily presentations of these stories in their Chinese language classes, students were to identify eighteen paintings that they wanted to locate and note clues in their fieldtrip workbooks to help them find these amidst the some 8,000 paintings that exist on this 728 long gallery.
We started out near the east gate of the park with a view of the lake, then began our loop, walking through one length of corridor and then stopping at the Buddhist incense tower (Foxiangge). We had about thirty minutes at this tower, and some students—including Andrew, Benoit, Tristan, Jason Q, and Rebecca,—climbed up to the pavilion through narrow painted corridors that were imitations of the long corridor for an even more spectacular view of the lake. I loved watching them stop to peer through the lattice-work windows of these corridors at the vistas which lay beyond the crowds of tourists: the lake itself, and the Empress Dowager’s marble boat; the Eighth Lake Island, and the Seventeen Arch Bridge that reaches it; the Dragon boats and paddle boats ferrying anonymous passengers.
When we resumed our walk along the corridor, I was struck my how differently our students were engaging with these paintings in contrast to many of the other tourists who pushed and wove their way past us. Most students walked in clusters, cradling their yellow notebooks in the crooks of their arms and waving pens or pencils in the opposite hand. Most walked with their heads tilted upwards, their eyes scanning, then focusing, then lighting up with recognition. Inevitably the hand holding the writing implement would shoot up as the student yelled to a friend, “Hey I know that one, that’s the story of the Weaver Girl and the Sheep-herder” or any other number of classical Chinese tales your children have come to know. I will confess that I don’t know the corridor stories as well as my students do, and I have now moved their collection of stories to the top of my reading list. I want to see the corridor in the way they now it—I too want to make these paintings and stories my own.
At the end of the corridor, we stopped for ice cream, giving ourselves a refreshing break from the heat. We then boarded a Dragon boat that took us to the island, and we walked across the bridge, assembling at the bronze ox before exiting to our waiting bus. Onward to lunch, but first, past the gates of Qinghua University and Beida (some of our students have parents who are graduates from these institutions), and Liao Laoshi pointed out the physics building where she did research as an undergraduate. We continued down Chengfu Lu, past Wudaokou and finally arriving at Chengfulu dongkou where we had lunch at a “Pizza Buffet.” After some brief encouragement by Liao Laoshi for everyone to exercise good judgment and moderation at this all-you-can-eat venue, your children dined enthusiastically on cuisines ranging from pizza to sushi.
From there we went to the Beijing Capital Museum and the students were encouraged to let inquiry guide their visit. They worked in groups prompted by questions in their notebooks, starting at the top floor of the museum, winding through exhibits on jade, and scholar’s treasures, paintings, bronzes and porcelain, and a wonderful exhibition hall on the history of Beijing which included a large clay and wooden model of street life in Beijing under the Qianlong Emperor, based on a Qing painting. It was especially wonderful to see the collections of jade and porcelain after learning about their history and production during our previous outings. We had two hours in the museum exhibits and then gathered at the movie theater on the first floor to watch a film on the history of Beijing. With the help of animation, we were better able to imagine the place where we are currently located as it may have appeared in Neolithic times, and watch how both landscape and cityscapes changed with the passage of time and of armies.
We exited the building at 4:20 and headed for Beijing’s Hongjuchuang (Red Theatre) in the Chongwen district for an hour-long Kongfu performance called “the Legend of Kongfu.” The performance included a series of scenes that took us through the arrival of a young monk in a monastery, his initiation, and learning, struggles with his own ego-based illusions, his remorse and reconciliation with his master, and his ultimate induction as the Abbot. In addition to the amazing martial arts, the show was well choreographed with some beautiful dancing and special effects.
From the show, we headed at 6:30 to the Soho district of Beijing for a special dinner: Thai food! Some of the dishes were quite spicy, but your children were adventurous in trying the ten dishes delivered to each table. Pad Thai and rice were the biggest hits, but we also had fans of the vegetables and curries. We left the restaurant and walked to the bus in a lovely warm evening breeze, arriving back to campus just before 8:30, with students clamoring to study for their final exams. We were touched to see how seriously they are taking their tests and we allowed for a slightly extended study evening for those who wanted more time to review.
All the best from Beijing,
We can hardly believe that our third week of camp and our last full week in Beijing is winding down. Today was a day of taking stock of what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown over these few weeks together. We began our day with morning exercise, and are happy to report that all of the students were able to run the mile loop at Chaoyang Park. This is quite an achievement and we are very proud of them!
Classes resumed today—our last morning of formal language instruction before the final exam on Sunday and then our trip to Huairou. All of the classes focused on review and preparation for the comprehensive exam that students will be taking. There is a lot of buzz around the test itself. The teachers have been very clear about the content and supportive in their review, but I think for some of the students it is awesome for them to consider just how much they have learned in this brief time. I am impressed that they care to do well on this assessment.
After our family-style lunch in the hotel we headed back to the same Community Center in Maizidian that we visited yesterday, this time to use their conference room for a lesson on Chinese medicine. We had a terrific instructor—a recent doctoral graduate from Beida. With the help of Shannon’s translations, the students were introduced to the early history of Chinese traditional medicine and the different types of treatments, which include zhongyao (herbs), zhenjiu (acupuncture), anmo (massage), bagua (cupping) and guasha (scraping). We were then given an introduction to the kinds of ingredients typically used in Chinese medicine, such as leaves, roots, seeds, and insects. The instructor passed around a number of different ingredients for us to touch and smell, such as ginger (good for stomach woes), dates (to increase the red blood cell count), cloves (also good for the gut), and anise (which repels worms). After showing us different kinds of needles used for acupuncture, she then got to the mot exciting part of all: the introduction of meridian lines and pressure points. We were given a hands-on instruction to the eight most important pressure points and their usefulness for self-treatment of bodily ailments. The instructor provided great visuals and verbal instruction on how to locate each of these, and then she circulated amongst us to make sure we had accurately identified these on our own bodies. Ask your child which pressure point they might press if they are feeling car sick, have lower back pain, a headache, pain from their braces, asthma, or sore hamstrings from running. They were all amazingly focused during this long introduction and were determined to learn all eight points (in past years, students only learned four!).
The instructor then took student volunteers to be patients so she could demonstrate a useful form of massage that is good to practice on children and adolescents to strengthen their immune systems. Victor happily volunteered, and so she had him lie on his stomach on a table and showed us how she could work her way up his spine, pinching the skin on his back between her thumbs and forefingers, then inching her way back down again. Several students said their Chinese parents or grandparents have used this same technique on them at bedtime every night. Benoit and Phil O. also volunteered to be teaching subjects and all three volunteers reported that this massage felt great!
Next, the instructor asked for volunteers to introduce cupping, which involves lighting a flame under a glass cup and then using the cup to create suction on the skin of the back. We had very few volunteers! Our first was Tristan, who was given a somewhat mild treatment where the practitioner rubbed his back with these warmed cups using gentle suction. Tristan was ambivalent about whether this ultimately felt good or not. Then Max volunteered to be our second volunteer and he agreed to let the practioneer create a true suction on his back, pulling a circle of skin into the glass cup and allowing it to remain there as the blood was drawn into this section of skin. I used to get cupping done regularly during my last year living in Beijing and I’m fairly convinced of its benefits, but I’ll admit the whole thing looks very bizarre. Max was a trooper, withstanding his classmates’ giggles and shocked observations, and he admitted it actually felt “pretty good.” He then volunteered to remain on the table to demonstrate “scraping”—where a jade (or amber) stone is rubbed along the back. Based on the coloration of Max’s skin in response to these treatments, the instructor determined that Max is healthy and that the cough he has been having is on its way out.
On our walk back to campus we took a surprise detour—a bakery. Today is Shannon’s birthday, as well as the eve of Jason Q’s birthday, and the teachers found a bakery that would accommodate our large group. We had delicious cake topped with fresh fruit and lots of frosting, after singing a boisterous round of “Happy Birthday.”
Swimming was on the agenda for the brief slot of time right before dinner, but many students felt they would rather study or play basketball. We split the group with me taking some of our youngest to the pool at Chaoyang Park and Zong Laoshi and Gong Laoshi bringing some to play basketball and others to study back in their rooms. We gathered together for dinner at 6:30 for a meal of roubing (bread filled with meat), salad, fruit, a cold mushrooms dish, and soup.
We ended our day with reflection. Many of our students shared special birthday wishes for their friends. Some also expressed appreciation that we have shown some flexibility with the schedule, considering and responding to their input in ways that help them feel “responsible” and “trusted.” We were done with reflection by 8:15 and encouraged students to get to bed as soon as possible, knowing we had a full day of activities planned and an early morning departure.
A few of your children are starting to feel of bit homesick while simultaneously talking about how much they will miss one another when we part. This is a very normal response to being away from family and friends on an intensive and lengthy program such as this, so don’t be alarmed if you are hearing some sadness when you talk with your children. As your children encounter homesickness our approach is to remain present with them in these feelings, not trying to talk them out of it, or rationalize how they could be feeling better. We see this as an opportunity to help them further develop their emotional intelligence as they identify their emotions and learn strategies for responding to them. Homesickness also offers them an opportunity to connect more deeply with their siblings and friends here with them on the program, as they share with one another their past experiences of being far from home and seek to comfort and support one another. We have a very sweet group of children together and are happy to see how good they are to each other. You must be missing them a great deal as well!
All the best from Beijing,
July 15, 2010
Our cooler and overcast weather persisted through today: comfortable weather for an all-day outing where we would be required to wear pants. The students woke early for morning exercise, and gathered at 7:15 to practice their "guangbo ticao” (the set of morning exercises they have been learning since our second morning in Beijing). We then boarded the bus at 8:45 for our first stop of the day: a home for the elderly (jinglaoyuan), which literally means “a place for respecting the old.”
For the past week, the students have been preparing to perform at this home, and they had their music with them to practice songs on the bus. I was sitting in the front of the bus and could hear a beautiful duet by Max and Benoit as they spontaneously opened their notebooks and began warming up. Rebecca, sitting across the aisle from me, leaned over and said of her friend from Class A, “Max is such a great singer!” I had no idea, but what a voice!
We were impressed with the facilities of this place as soon as we entered the brightly lit courtyard. The home just opened in April and there are about thirty residents, some of whom are prominent scientists who are well regarded as having contributed to China’s development. Many of the residents and staff were gathered in the courtyard as we arrived, and this was a wonderful opportunity for your children to learn something about Chinese traditional values of respecting elders and to also participate in an official reception as guests. There were a series of speeches given which included a welcome by a local government official, an introduction to YingHua by Liao Laoshi explaining our students’ interest in learning about Chinese culture, an introduction to the facility by the manager, and finally—most moving of all—a welcome by one of the residents. This resident was an elderly gentleman who was wheelchair bound and clad in pajamas, and who must have been close to ninety years old. He was wheeled up front and was handed a microphone and gave a very clear and warm speech about his appreciation of our students’ efforts to travel to China and learn more about Chinese culture. Everyone listened quietly—it was clear this man had the respect of all the residents and staff at this facility. I was very moved by his presence and couldn’t help but marvel at the lack of any attempt to disguise his aging or to pretty him up for a crowd of visitors. It was hard for me to imagine an equivalent scene in the U.S., where someone as apparently frail and aged as this man would be given a microphone and asked to be the official welcome. I was happy our students had a chance to witness this.
Our students then gave some outstanding performances to entertain our hosts. We started out with a skit from the D Class: the first story from Shuihu Zhuan (the Outlaws of the Marsh, also known as The Water Margin ), which the class has been reading as part of their curriculum. Class D speaks very fluently, and they gave a very amusing rendition of this tale of an outlawed band of brothers, drawing plenty of chuckles from the students and grandparents alike. We followed this up with a song sung by a combined chorus and Class A and Class B, singing “Tongyi Shouge” (including a duet performed by Max and Rebecca). Then all the students came on stage and sung a song they have been practicing called “Pengyou” (a beautiful song about the endurance of life-long friendships, despite distance and the passing of time). Your children then performed their morning exercise set to music (the residents loved this, and some of them remembered this particular set!). They ended with a demonstration of the martial arts form they have learned together.
After all of these performances there was an exchange of gifts: we brought fruit and we were given beautiful hand-held fans. The students then mixed and socialized with the residents, greeting them, introducing themselves, shaking or holding their hands, offering and feeding them fruit. Some of the elderly gentlemen were so appreciative of having us there (and of your children’s efforts to learn Chinese) that they cried, tears streaming down their faces, as they held your children’s hands. We were reluctant to leave, and as we headed out into a drizzly morning I better understood the traditional Chinese parting,
”Manman zou” (slowly, slowly go…).
Our day was still young, as it wasn’t yet 11:00 am. Our next stop was Fa Yuan Si: the oldest Buddhist temple in Beijing, which is also an active temple and a Buddhist institute of learning. It was built during the Tang Dynasty, but had a special patron during the High Qing: the Qianlong Emperor himself, who did the calligraphy in one of the center halls. The students had pages in their workbooks that helped focus them during this visit and they may be able to tell you about some of the trees and inscriptions in this sacred historic site.
From the temple we went for lunch at a hot pot restaurant: De Shun Lou. Each student had their own small pot placed before them and they got to cook a variety of vegetables, tofu, noodles and meats and dip these in a wonderful sesame-based sauce. We then crossed the street to visit another holy site: the Niu Jie Mosque which was first built during the Liao Dynasty in 996 and which houses the tombs of Muslim tutors who came to Beijing during the Yuan. This is also and active religious sites and no one is permitted to enter who is not wearing pants. We arrived just before the 1:30 call for prayer and were able to hear the beautiful singing of the Imam as he called believers for prayer.
Was our day over yet? Not quite. We headed back towards our neighborhood—the Maizidian district of Chaoyang, but we stopped short of “home” making a detour to the Zhao Ying Bei Li Community Center where the local party leader gave us a tour of the community’s social services. In all of my years traveling and living in China, I have never had a backroom tour such as this one! We learned that the government has brought all social services into this community so that people don’t need to travel far to have their various social needs met. These services include the Red Cross and other emergency relief and charity organizations, rehab facilities and other services for the disabled, services for women and children, family planning, labor and social security, legal aid, civil dispute resolution. All of these are housed under one local government facility.
We were then brought to the juweihui (neighborhood committee) where we were shown a glass case that ran the length of a wall filled with binders organized by building: the official records kept on all residents of Zhao Ying Bei Li. These include records on both permanent and temporary residents (no wonder my previous landlords in China insisted we register with the local police within days of moving into our residences!). Keeping with our theme of elder care in China, we learned that among other records kept is a log of all elderly residents who don’t have children living with them. These records help the neighborhood committee —which is responsible for more than 4,400 families housed in thirty-one buildings!—provide better services to the elderly.
Before we ducked out of this building, the party leader brought us to another amazing room where we got to see “the Map” of all maps. We were shown a wall-sized electronic map with streets and buildings. With the push of a button, the party leader could show us, among other things, where all the dry cleaners in the neighborhood were located, all the fruit and vegetable vendors, all the ATMs, newspaper stands, dry cleaners, or haircut stores. Each of these categories of interest would simply light up with the push of a button. Most amazing of all were the lights that lit up when he pushed the button to show us where the video cameras in the neighborhood are. I can assure you there are a lot of cameras in maizidian.
After a brief detour through the foreign language library (which includes two sets of the Harry Potter series), we arrived at the community activities center itself, which has a number of offerings for senior residents of the neighborhood. The facilities are beautiful and modern—this is no doubt a model community. No bingo for these elders. We were invited into a beautiful dance studio where women were dressed in gorgeous costumes practicing a fan dance. We were also able to see a wonderful performance by a drama and dance troupe that did a well-choreographed rendition of Old Beijing teahouse culture. We were shown a large movie theater where free movies are shown weekly and a beautiful storytelling room modeled after an old teahouse, where storytellers come regularly to practice this traditional art while residents sit at wooden tables and sip tea. Finally, we ended up in an art and calligraphy studio where a handful of men were painting at long tables. They assisted our students in painting and practicing their calligraphy, and then surprised us all by writing poems in their beautiful script for those students who wanted them, personalizing each and adding the student’s name to their work of art. We were again reluctant to leave.
We’ve noticed your children like potatoes, meat, noodles, and almost any variety of bing, so we ended our day with dinner at a Dongbei restaurant (north-east China cuisine). Can you guess it was a hit?
We pulled up back at “campus” shortly before 7:00, and gathered at 7:15 for reflection. Your children were quite moved by their experience with elders today. Many noted how touched they were by the tears of some of the men they shook hands with, as they had never realized our presence here could mean so much to them. Some noted the generosity of all of the hosts, especially the artists who spent their time sharing their paintings and calligraphy with us.
This was an amazing day, and I still can’t believe we experienced as much as we did during these few short hours. So much happened, that I think it will take awhile for your children to fully process it all. You may ask you child if they chose to circulate amongst the elderly residents and talk with them or feed them fruit. What was that like for them? You might ask them what made the deepest impression on them at either the temple or the mosque (I noticed some of your children were especially quiet and observant at these sites). You might also ask them what they think of the social services (and social control) that we saw in the neighborhood we visited. What do they think both the benefits and costs might be to having such a strong government administrative presence in one’s daily life? Would they like to live in such a community? Why or why not?
We are really enjoying our time together. Thank you again for sharing your children.
Best from Beijing,
Today I took ZZ on a playdate to Aliah's, who lives right across from our former home in Beijing at Shangdi Jiaoyuan. We took the subway and the light rail, getting off at our old stop—Shangdi—and walking through the old grounds. The same curtains are still in the windows of our old apartment. The bamboo and shrubs lining the creek were quite overgrown (perhaps because it's summer?), but much was still the same. I hung out with Trish (Aliah's mom) for about an hour, then headed back on my own via the light rail. Got off at one stop past Shangdi at Wudaokou and got some yogurt and bing for a hurried lunch, then ducked into my favorite boutique clothing store there, "Pinyu Clothes" to browse the racks. Love that place. Got two very sweet long shirts that I'm looking forward to wearing once the program is over and I'm no longer a camp director!
What a terrific day we have had today on campus! I am soaring from our very last activity—a return visit from our Chinese puzzle teacher—but I will try to be a good narrator and tell you something of what came before this extraordinary evening.
The day started at 6:55 with morning exercise, breakfast, then Mandarin classes. Added to our regular language curriculum was skit practice for tomorrow’s visit to the elder community. Your children are getting excited and nervous about their performances. I promise, I will tell you more about these after our visit!
After a family-style lunch with some especially delicious bing, the students had a bit of free time to work on homework and socialize. As you may have gathered from our updates, we don’t have a great deal of “free time” on the program, and some of our campers have been clamoring for it. After homework was completed, we had a large circle of card players on the fourth floor enjoying some relaxation together before our next activity: making small figures out of clay.
We gathered in the hotel restaurant for this activity and the students delighted in using their hands to shape small figurines out of colored clay. The instructor—who is an accomplished clay figurine artist who has taken the artistic name of Mian Renzhang (mianren meaning “clay figurine”)—taught the students how to make two pre-established models. The first was a tiny panda, which they then enclosed in a tiny framed box. The second was a rooster. Some of the students also made other animals, such as snakes and birds. Some of our students especially love art, and I particularly enjoyed watching the talent and enthusiasm of Victoria Bullock, Shannon, David, and Max.
After working with clay for about an hour and a half, the students walked back to the “dorm” for our next activity: a lesson on Chinese religion. Tomorrow we are going to visit two active religious sites in Beijing: a mosque and a Buddhist temple. In preparation for this outing, I introduced the students to the history of Chinese religions, beginning with a Ming painting of the sanjiao —the three religions and their masters, Laozi, Sakyamuni, and Confucius—and discussed these three systems as the “three legs” of Chinese religion. Haoran, who has really studied a great deal about China, rightly pointed out to me that not everyone considers Confucianism a religion. So I folded my justification for its inclusion into the later part of my lecture on ancestor worship and Chinese folk beliefs about ghosts, which are historically very real to Chinese and very important, as are the rites that can transform a deceased relative into an ancestor instead of a hungry ghost. We discussed some of the fundamentals of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism and also talked about how, historically, the Chinese state has always sought to control both the gods and religion through such things as imperial sacrifices, the establishment of a state pantheon, and the labeling of certain practices and gods as “heterodox” (this is not just a Communist thing). We then talked about religion under Mao and the early PRC and finally arrived at how religion operates in present-day China—the popularity and vitality of religious practices in rural and urban China and some of the reasons why it may benefit the party-state to support and encourage certain religious communities and practices.
We’ve been working with your children on “expanding their circle of influence” here in the program by being proactive and risk-taking in their creating desired activities and opportunities. We and are happy to report that two of our campers (Jack and William) successfully brought about a much-desired game of hoops on the courts at the neighboring Beijing International Academy of Arts and Sciences. Almost everyone turned out to either play or watch (except for me, who stayed back to write up yesterday’s update while Elaine played flashlight tag with Zhouzhou in our room—sorry, but I have no play-by-play to report on the game itself !). Suffice it to say that your children arrived to dinner at 6:30 with huge appetites and nice-smelling hair (many having showered off their court-sweat on the way to dinner).
Great dinner: dried tofu skins with green peppers and small pieces of chicken; egg and tomatoes; beef and potatoes with that delicious anise flavor; bok choy and one other green; rice (of course); fried mantou with condensed milk sauce (yum!); and ending with a plate of watermelon slices.
The students arrived at 7:30 on the third floor for reflection and were met with a surprise: the return of our beloved Chinese puzzle teacher, Yao Laoshi. He had three other puzzle teachers with him—all former students—and they had one and only one puzzle to share tonight. It is an interesting ring puzzle, with a string of interconnected metal rings that are attached to a metal pole. The trick is to separate the rings, one (or two) at a time, from the pole. This puzzle requires the player to unlock the pattern or sequence of moves necessary to release the rings and then the focus and patience to concentrate on repeating the pattern until all of the rings are free. This puzzle teacher is amazing. He has a wonderful combination of patience and exuberance. He clearly delights in supporting children learning these mind games and celebrated each and every child’s accomplishments, beaming with pleasure when he saw them gaining insights into the patterns. He was as impressed with our group (“Tamen hen congming!”) as I was with his teaching. He did eventually write the pattern on the white board in Chinese for students to follow: yi shang, yi er xia, donghou yi shang, yi er shang, yi xia, donghou yi shang. But still, it required a great deal of focus and understanding to unlock it. Shannon and Lionel are the only ones in the group who knew the solution before tonight’s lesson, but it was delightful to watch the sheer joy of your children as they brought that last ring off of the pole, completing the puzzle. Benoit was the first of this year’s crew to accomplish this, followed next by Elaine, Rebecca, and Mingming. I also had the pleasure of witnessing Jason Q, William, Yvonne, Linlin, and Liao Laoshi at the precious moment when they finally accomplished the objective and experienced the pure joy of accomplishment. Many other students successfully completed this puzzle tonight (I know Lauren and Victoria S also succeeded), and others are still working on it. You might ask your child what it felt like to work so long to accomplish separating the rings. What did it feel like to finally understand the pattern, but still have to focus to complete the puzzle? What did it feel like the moment you succeeded? What was your experience of putting the rings back on the puzzle after you had just finished the challenge of separating them?
Colette (Mei Laoshi)
Today we had a full day on campus. No exercise this morning: students slept in a bit after their long day of outings yesterday. Classes began at 8:45 and after our family-style lunch each class of students gathered to create and practice skits that they will be performing at a senior center in Beijing on Thursday. These skits give your children an opportunity to practice their spoken Mandarin and to explore some cultural differences between Chinese and American humor. I’ll write more detail about these skits after our visit on Thursday. Suffice it to say that many of your children are moving out of their comfort zones and taking a few risks in performing in Chinese.
We had a brief homework break after the skit practice and then gathered at 3:30 for a leadership workshop focusing on the leadership attribute of being “principled.” Liao Laoshi and I tag-teamed in teaching and facilitating our discussion, and we were very impressed with the high level of student participation and engagement. I’ll add here that it is both a challenge and an opportunity for me to teach such a mixed-age group of students. The older students challenge me with complex philosophical questions (such as Jonathon’s question, “Are you ‘principled’ if your ‘principles’ contradict one another?”) while the younger set of students forces me to more clearly define and describe my terms (“Are ‘principles’ the same as ‘morals’? ‘What are morals?’). I began by leading a discussion on what makes for a “principled” person. We generated a list that included such things as “doing the right thing,” “putting principles above other things,” and “thinking before you act.” I then had students reflect in their journals for about ten minutes on a person they admire who is ‘principled’, describing this person and his or her principles and the affect being principles has on their lives. We then made a list of these people and their principles (one of our examples was one of our own students, Benoit, who more than one student admired as being principled). Once we generated these examples of principles, we generated another list of things that make it difficult to be principled. This list included such things as “laziness,” “greed,” “peer pressure,” “worry about what others want us to do,” “threats from other people,” “starvation or being really poor,” “wanting to impress a boy or girl,” “wanting to be cool.”
We then took one of these challenges to being principled—peer pressure—and had small group discussions about real-situations when students have experienced peer pressure to break a rule or go against a principle. We divided the students up in groups of five (mixed ages) and had them talk about times they have felt peer pressure to do something that went against their principles and strategies they used to deal with this situation. Each group was asked to choose one good example from their group to share with the larger group. The examples were fascinating and the discussion was very energetic. Philip Li shared that his group chose an example of trick or treating with a group of friends and arriving at a house where someone had left a bowl of candy out with a note on it that said, “Please take one.” Immediately all the kids scrambled to empty the whole bowl, leaving the host without candy. Many students nodded their heads about this example. They’d seen it before, and Jack shared that he had been on the other end of this experience, when his babysitter left a bowl out and kids in the neighborhood took it all. Your children were terrific at thinking through the various implications of that one act of taking all the candy for oneself: how others in the group of trick-or-treaters might be affected by this; how other children in the neighborhood may feel about it; how the host may feel; how their bodies may feel after eating all that candy. They then came up with some creative and insightful alternatives to succumbing to the peer pressure and taking all the candy. Besides the obvious (don’t take the candy), other possible choices included Jack suggesting he tell the kids how bad it feels to have your candy taken like that “because they probably haven’t thought of that before.” That may be enough to convince the friends. Philip O. suggested that if you weren’t strong enough or felt unsafe standing up to the crowd there might be something reparative you could do, like return the candy you took or replace the candy with more candy. Shannon suggested that even if you didn’t replace the candy, it might be a good thing to go back and tell the owners of the house what happened and apologize. This Halloween example we puzzled over together was just one of several scenarios. Another interesting discussion was launched with an example of accepting an invitation to one party and then being invited to another party that you really want to go to: what principles would help you decide what is “right” to do in this situation? You might ask your child what creative solutions students found for this dilemma and what your child thinks is the right thing to do.
Liao Laoshi then led a very interesting and inspiring discussion on expanding one’s circle of influence based on Steve Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (there is a version of this published for teens). Liao Laoshi introduced the notion there are two kinds of control—direct and indirect—which can be used to expand one’s circle of influence. She asked for examples of people using their indirect influence to accomplish something. Rebecca came up with the example of calling a teacher or the police to break up a fight. Shannon brought up an example of something we experienced on this trip: a smoker in a restaurant who we wished would stop smoking, but we didn’t know how to get him to stop. Philip O, William, Jack and Haoran gave some great ideas of how we might have expanded our influence to prevent smoking in that restaurant. These included: going to the manager and reminding him of the law in China against smoking in indoor public spaces; making a direct appeal to the smoker himself to higher moral principles (the health of children); move tables; leave the restaurant.
Liao Laoshi then wrapped up with the important observation that all animals operate via both stimulus and reaction. For most animals these are tightly connected (you poke a dog with something sharp and it bites you). But again, drawing on Stephen Covey, as humans we have the ability to increase that distance between stimulus and reaction and think before we act, hopefully separating the response from the stimulus itself. That is, we can be “response-able.” We summed up this ability to be “response-able”—to think before we act—as being the basis of principled living, and a powerful attribute to develop as leaders.
We wrapped our day up with dinner and reflection. The students had many appreciative things to say about their trip to the Great Wall and about the generosity they have observed in their peers. We’re finding they are growing quieter now as they write and settling more easily into reflection, and we have many willing and eager to be the first to share.
We have another day on campus and then a field trip on Thursday. It’s hard to believe we’re already into our last week in Beijing, before going to Hairou next week where we will be putting to practice many of the language and leadership skills we have been developing.
All the best from Beijing,
Colette (Mei Laoshi)