Friday, March 2, 2007

The disappearing elephant

Today an elephant lifted me up with its trunk. No, really. I have the fairly unflattering but still excellent pictures to prove it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some important things to note about that past few days:

Firstly, I forgot to talk about the Mongolian lunch we got in the village near Tonghai. We were given a traditional Mongolian welcome, which involves an enormous amount of a food, special tables, and a performance by Mongolian girls. They sang us songs in Mongolian, and although there were only 4 or 5 of them, their voices were incredibly piercing and quite loud. The sound of their plain but powerful melodies made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. At the end, we gave three ceremonial drinks of bai jiu-- one was flicked into the air as a sacrifice to the sky, one was touched on the forehead as an honor to the ancestors, and one was kicked back a la traditional shots, for the here and now. It was a very cool ceremony to take part in, and the sound of those voices will be hard to shake.

Yesterday marked the beginnings of our independence. We were rationed out food money; a lunchbox, spoon, and fork for the cafeteria; a student ID card; and a bicycle (which is the most exciting.) Then we were set free. Several of us opted to go with Charles, a Chinese English student who is a program assistant, to the English Corner (where Chinese people go to practice English) near Green Lake Park. First we went out to dinner, where we ate Crossing Bridge Noodles, a traditional Kunming soup with a story behind it. The story says that there was a scholar and his wife living hear a large lake with an island in the middle. The scholar liked to study there, and every day his wife would bring him a lunch of soup across the bridge, but it was always cold. Then one day the wife was too busy to make lunch and when she remembered she just grabbed a pot of broth and some vegetables and raw meat and hurried across the bridge. When she put the fixings in the broth, she found that it was still hot enough to cook them-- the layer of fat on top had insulated the heat from escaping. That's how the dish works too: they bring you a big bowl of broth, vegetables, spices, meat, and noodles and you make them yourself. Delicious.

The English corner turned out to be just a given spot where lots of people gather, and those of us on the program who went were immediately the object of much attention. As one person told me "We can practice whenever we want, but we don't often have a chance to speak with foreign friends." During my time at the English Corner we talked about American college life, finances, many cultural differences between China and America. They asked me a lot of questions I didn't know the answer to, but in general it was nice to dispel some assumptions about Americans. One man, who is of Bai minority descent, told me he had watched over 400 American movies and proceeded to pull out a notebook full of idioms. "I got cold feet," he recited stiffly. "She is so hot;" "You made my day." At one point, when I had about 12 inquisitive Chinese faces looking eagerly at me, I started to feel ominous stomach rumblings. Luckily, I was pointed across the street to a gorgeous hotel with immaculate Western toilets and toilet paper (a luxury here, you generally need to bring your own.) It was basically the best place possible I could have gotten sick.

Sorry to be a tease, but I'm with Diana at the internet cafe and it's very smoky, so she's feeling nauseous. The story of the elephant will have to wait until next time (thus the title of this entry.)

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