Thursday, March 1, 2007

Lean on Me

Resuming my recounting of strange, strange times in Tonghai:

Our second day in Tonghai was just as mind-blowing as the first. After another traditional Chinese breakfast we walked up a hill to an English school owned by a friend of the program, whose English name is Albert. We did some more orientation discussion and took an oral test to place ourselves in language classes-- I found out today I will be sharing a class with Lisa, who goes to Wellesley and has red dreadlocks (brave in China.) We actually had to struggle to choose our textbooks because Lisa was in Beijing studying language last semester and I haven't studied for a whole year, so I'm rusty and she's still very fresh. But I think we came to a good compromise. We will have two teachers (that's a 1:1 ratio, jeez) for grammar and speaking. They are not much older than we are.

Anyway, back to Tonghai-- after the placement test we were allowed 5 or 6 hours to wander in Xiushan Mountain park, which is home to an entire complex of Buddhist and Daoist temples anywhere from 200-900 years old. It also has a sacred spring (which the complex is built around) and saw a lot of people carrying jugs of water on sticks a la oxen yokes, going to get water. The park was incredibly beautiful-- most of the temples are still working, and there were people praying and flowering trees everywhere. I spent my afternoon mostly with Tania, who seems very sweet and thoughtful but with an alternative side-- she's studying gender at Hampshire and this morning I noticed she has a tattoo of a mountain on her back. We spent all of our time on the mountain, although some people opted to go back to Albert's to play with the kids there. The temples and gardens were just breathtaking. At one point, an old man playing an er hu (Chinese violin with two strings, yes Marianna, like the guy in Harvard Square) and we stopped to listen. Before I knew it he had sat me down and was molding my hands to bow correctly. It took a lot of effort, but after 15 minutes I was able to play a scale. Another thing I never thought I would get to do, learning er hu from an old Chinese man who didn't speak a word of English.

The er hu player had a friend who came over to talk to us for awhile, too, and he offered to take us up the mountain, which was an adventure. It was really good Chinese practice, he kept up a constant patter of conversation and was always asking "Do you know the name of that tree? Do you know the name of that flower?" After awhile when we would stop to look at things and he would wait, we were afraid that he wanted money but ultimately he left us just saying it was wonderful to meet us. I wish I had thought to give him some American change-- I've been giving out dimes and nickels to people and they always are fascinated and excited by "mei guo qian" (American money.) On the way down from the mountain we came upon a family munching on raw sugarcane, and they insisted on giving some to us. It was delicious-- you eat it by ripping off the outside of the big stalk with your teeth, biting in, sucking out the sweet juice, and spitting out the remains. As spitting is almost a national pastime here, I felt very Chinese eating the sugarcane.

We were supposed to meet the group at 6 for dinner with more officials, but Tania and I got lost on the way to the hotel. We had been enduring curious stares and yells of "Hello!" all day, but when we stopped to ask a man for directions to our hotel we legitimately drew a crowd. People stopped and pretended to look at things around us, but it was clear they were watching us. The man we were asking didn't speak Mandarin, so he had to write down the question "What is the name of your hotel?" so we could tell him (although Chinese dialects sound different, they are all written the same.) All the while, more people with inquisitive faces squatted or stood nearby, looking in pure curiosity. I never knew I could be such an attraction.

We finally got back to the hotel in time for Crazy Official Dinner Number 2. We knew what to expect this time-- more drinking, more eating, more crazy Chinese drinking songs. This time, though, the officials also did some Peking Opera dances for us-- I've never heard a man with such a high falsetto. In return, we all got together and sang "Lean on Me" for them. Those of you who have heard the story of my New Years in Hangzhou will remember that I have experience singing to Chinese officials. The rest of the night was spent at a bar Albert owns.

We left the hotel bright and early the next day, and it wasn't until we were on the bus that I realized I had left the necklace I bought in Ireland at the hotel. The odd thing is that I couldn't remember taking it off. I went back with Chen Laoshi and the driver to look and get a ring Tania left, but no luck. I'm very sad about this loss. Maybe someone still in the area can pick me up a replacement... We spent the afternoon looking at a Daoist temple in an area where there used to be an enormous lake. The lake has shrunk over the years, but there are still ancient boat docks everywhere, including inside one of the temples. Very interesting.

More interesting, though, was our trip to the only Mongolian village in Yunnan province. The Yuan dynasty was a Mongolian one (that's Kublai Khan, etc) and when they came to fight the tribal kings in Yunnan for control of China, a lot of Mongolian soldiers were injured, and when the Mongolians ultimately pulled out they left a lot of the injured behind to start this one village. The interesting thing is that it's now been 750 years, and the language and culture have both changed to be different than people who live in Mongolia today. It's a strange mix with local customs and language. As an Anthropology geek, I find that fascinating. I don't know if it's fascinating enough to do my Independent Study Project on it, but we'll see. Anyway, we happened to come to the village, which is picturesquely poor (like most places outside the city here) on a festival day, so everyone was wearing their traditional clothes, very colorfol and sparkly and interesting-looking. I bought a handmade apron and we listened to some performances and then got asked to sing as well. We sang "Lean on Me" again (everyone knows it) and "Jingle Bells." The audience loved it.

The past few days other than that have been mostly preparation for classes, which start Monday. Charles, a Chinese english student who is a program assistant, showed us around Kunming last night, pointing out some coffee shops, an English bookstore, this internet cafe (where internet is Y1 or 12 cents per hour), a movie theater, and Green Lake park, which is beautifully lit at night. There were huge groups of people dancing for fun in the park. Not something you'd ever see in the states. We got a talk about health today and chose our textbooks, and this afternoon we will see an introductory video about Yunnan. Things are slowly grinding into gear.

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