Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in China

We spent our first Christmas in China. It was wonderful, relaxing and focused. We relaxed as a family, spent time with friends, skyped with family and went ice skating. The university near our house freezes their athletic field and uses it for PE classes or recreational skating. It costs RMB 5 to skate and RMB 5 to rent skates. So it costs us a total of RMB 25 (E. owns her own skates) to skate for a few hours. In American dollars that is about $3.50.
People might be surprised that Christmas is a big holiday here. Santa is everywhere-Santa says "Christmas Merry" or even "Feliz Navidad." There are trees decorated, tinsel and glitter. I can't seem to get my pictures to upload but you might be surprised at what is here.
However, it is totally secular. There is little knowledge of the incarnation, that Immanuel has come with us. And that is sad.
We spent Christmas Eve at a local registered body. We sang, we watched a pageant performed and generally had a good time. At the end, something redemptive and wonderful happened.
Every Christmas, our daughter has had gold coins in her stocking. You've probably seen them-the coins in a mesh bag. It's a Dutch German thing. I saw them a few months ago at the foreign grocery store but didn't grab them. Lesson learned- if you want something and you see it, buy it!
Elisabeth was sad about not having them this year. She had even asked me that day if I had found any. Tradition is important when all your roots have been pulled up and everything is new.
So, as we were at the end of the service, they started to hand out candy. I looked back at what she was holding and there it was. A gold coin. A gold yuan-the old ancient Chinese money. She got her coin in a new form! It just was a wonderful reminder of a loving Father who cares for her.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A typical day.

We've had some intnernet issues that haven't made it possible for me to post. I still can't upload pictures but I can write!
Some people have asked us what our life is like here in China- what is a typical day? Well, the only thing that I can say is that no day is typical! Things that are just so different here. We have quickly gotten used to the noise, the crowdedness, the traffic. We have come to realize that everything takes twice or three times as long to get done. For example- we shop at mostly local markets. This means that when we go to the store, we walk down to the basement to get our bikes, ride to the store, go to the butcher, the fruit and vegetable people and the the main grocery. All is done in cash so if we don't have cash, we first have to go to the ATM. This takes much longer than when we were in the states and simply got in the car and drove five minutes to the store, shopped, paid with our bank card, had someone bag our groceries and drove home.
Our main activity right now is culture and language learning. We are in language school five days a week and meet with language helpers at least two afternoons a week. We are involved with an English Corner on Friday nights that is sponsored by a local group with the same world view as us. We've had many good conversations at this group. Paul is involved in a different book study on a different evening.
I tutor an ESL student one afternoon a week at the international school and am doing some teacher training at our language school.
Here are some descriptions of a few days in the last week.

Day One. It is well below freezing. Paul gets on his bike and rides 50 minutes north to a meeting which was very fruitful. After the meeting, he rides 40 minutes to the post office to pick up a package (mail doesn't come to our home). At the post office, he is told that the package is not at this post office, it's at a different one on the north side of the city. Right near where he had his morning meeting! So he rides his bike home where I am working with my language helper.
After she leaves, we get on the bus to go to the post office. It is still well below freezing and there is no heat on the bus. There is ice on the windows. Paul studies Chinese on the ride. I feel sleepy and consider whether I have hypothermia. I think about getting out and getting a taxi. Then I realize that getting off the bus will mean standing outside of in the cold and that there was no guarantee that the taxi would have heat. So we stay on the bus for the 45 minutes it takes to get to the Beizhan post office near the north train station.
At the post office, we show our passports and get a nice little package from my friend in England. Then, since we were on the north side of the city, I asked Paul if we could go to the Manna Bookstore. This is a religious store that sells books and CD's and they also have a business where they make beautiful scrolls.
We get a taxi remarkably quickly. When we pull up to Imperial Palace (the bookstore is near there), we realize that the driver has turned off the meter and has charged us three times what he should have. It's dark (even though it's only 4:30) and Paul realizes that the guy had told him that was what he was going to do. That's not an uncommon practice around the train station. So we paid and went to the bookstore.
The store was nice and the scrolls were beautiful. We bought each other scrolls for Christmas.
Then we stepped out into a cold and frosty night right around the time that the taxi driver's change shifts. We are in a part of the city where we don't know the buses so we needed a taxi. Most tell us no because it's too far across the city to take us. We were far north and we live far south in the city. Finally, one has pity and we get home. For less than what we paid the driver who took us ten minutes from the train station.
We arrive home exhausted and order Chinese take-out for dinner!

Day 2. In the morning, we took a young teacher to the airport. She has been here for a few months and it was her time to go back to the US. Negotiating a taxi to the airport takes some language skill and bargaining. We found a driver that was very reasonable and fit three people, a driver and four big suitcases into a taxi. We arrive at the airport, check her in, have a little kerfluffle about overage and overweight charges on her suitcase and leave her as she makes it through security. We took the airport bus back to the city, got off near a large grocery and went grocery shopping. I've learned to always carry a grocery bag with me! That and toilet paper.
In the late afternoon, we got back on the bus (same as the other day) to go speak at a private English school. We traveled about 45 minutes and then met the owner of the school at a bus stop. We got into his car and went to the school. There Paul taught vocabulary and the true meaning of Christmas. He had them read Christmas story from some excerpts and then we taught them "Silent Night." Many knew it in Chinese. There were many good questions and we really enjoyed talking with these students.
After the talk, the owner drove us home in his car. It was the first private car that we have been in since we arrived in China four months ago. Aside from a few taxi's a week, it's mostly buses and bikes for us! On a cold night, a car with actual heat is preferable to an unheated bus any day!

Life here is busy, complicated and demanding. Everything take a long time to accomplish. The coldis very wearing. We wear long john's all the time-sometimes two pairs! We have heavy coats, gloves and hats. I even bought a "nose Warmer." It looks like a surgical mask but really keep the face warm. Our government regulated heat keeps our apartment warm, and for that I am very thankful.
Our lives are really very ordinary. We are just trying to live faithfully in an extraordinary situation.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Mock Wedding in China.

A few weeks ago, Paul and I were invited to a local language school to do a "mock wedding." Paul was the officiant and I was the wedding coordinator, along with another teacher. The students had different roles (bride, groom, best man etc.) After the wedding and reception, we were able to participate in a Q & A about dating, marriage and parenting. The group had married and single students and they all had good questions. Here are a few pictures from the day. Each student got a copy of traditional wedding vocabulary from the traditional vows. Here, Paul is explaining the vocabulary.
Demonstrating how to walk down the aisle.

Explaining to each participant where they would stand.

Explaining the vows.

Sorry-repeat picture that won't go away.

The actual "ceremony."

More vows.

The wedding party looking at something to the right!

The wedding party.
It really was a fun morning for us.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Shopping in China

Today the temperature in Shenyang was about 9 degrees fahrenheit. It was sunny and the wind wasn't blowing too hard, so Elisabeth and I decided it was time to shop. We needed some Christmas gifts and kitchen things. We've been fairly slow at making our kitchen complete and I really felt it while cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Shopping in China is usually done in districts or streets. So we headed for "Kitchen Street." I shopped there with a friend when I first arrived and it was really fun. Paul and I rode our bikes around the street one day after language school but couldn't find the store where I had been with my friend. So I told Elisabeth that there was no guarantee that we would find the place to buy kitchen stuff.
We took a taxi to the American Consulate. In China, it is more common to ask a taxi driver to go to a landmark than an address. So he dropped us off and we walked around the main boulevard. We turned down one side street where there were several food carts set up. We saw a DVD stand that was selling DVD's for a movie that was just released in theater's this week! Pirating is alive and well here.
After some more walking around, we actually found the shop. This was good as it was so cold my eyes were beginning to hurt.
The store is actually a place where restaurants buy supplies. It's a place where you can bargain but not too much. First we bought a glass baking dish which is the perfect size for brownies. Then we went to another merchant and wheeled and dealed with a very nice man for some muffin tins. We got a fairly reasonable price and were walking away when Elisabeth saw it -an electric mixer! These are rarely found in China and I didn't even bargain for it. A woman came up and told me that the price was "hen3 pian2yi" or "really cheap!" I said "Not cheap? Really cheap?" "Bu4 shi 4pian2yi? Hen3 pian2yi?" They all laughed and we paid (RMB 80 or about $11.75)and walked around more. We found pizza pans, aprons and a few other necessary items and left.
For me, this is the best kind of language learning. I'm not as worried about saying everything correctly and people seem to understand. Most people are kind and sympathetic and helpful. Every bit of encouragement helps.
After taking a taxi home, we ate lunch and then ventured out again. We both needed boots for this land of freezing temperatures. We went to a different shopping area which has an underground mall that was blessedly warm. I had forgotten to look in the dictionary for vocabulary words like "boots" or "try on" or "size." But by acting things out and using the vocabulary that Elisabeth and I had between us, we both managed to get a pair of winter boots. When we asked the price, they told us a pretty reasonable amount. We talked to each other about the price in English for a minute and they dropped the price! Good accidental bargaining technique on our part!
We finished some Christmas shopping and then headed to Starbucks for something warm. There is something so heart soothing about sitting in a place that is familar. The setting is just like a Starbucks in the US. So are the prices, so this was a rare treat for us.
It gets dark around 4:15 so by the time we were ready to go home at 5:30, it was good and dark. It's also the time of day where it is almost impossible to find a taxi as it is around shift changed. After trying fruitlessly for about 15 minutes in the freezing cold, we decided to walk towards a main boulevard where I knew we could catch a bus. One of my newly acquired skills is pushing my way through a bus, so a rush hour bus that was packed like sardines would be no problem. Fortunately, we found a willing taxi on a side street who took us home.
A good day, a long day, a good language learning day for Elisabeth and I. It's fun to struggle together with language and culture and I am happy I had this day with her.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sheng Ri Kaui le

Each woman in this picture is from a different country.
Do you know what this cake says?

Last week I gave a baby shower for an American friend. It's her fourth baby and we just really wanted to celebrate this new life.

Of course, this kind of thing is prime language learning. I met with my language helper and had her give me the vocabulary to order a cake at a bakery. I practiced for a while with her and then we rode off on our bikes to the bakery near my apartment. It was closed. So we rode over to a different bakery across the Northeastern University Campus. Mind you, it was below twenty degrees!

So we go into the bakery and order a cake. I spoke "Chinese" and my language helper clarified in Chinese. I acted out a pregnant woman. I said "cake" and "baby" and "not a birthday." My helper said the same things so that the bakery woman could stop looking so blank and confused.

Baby shower's are unheard of in China. You would never celebrate before a baby is born. So when we looked at the cake book to choose a design, there was nothing with a baby on it. There was plenty of Pokemon and other children's themes but nothing sweet or baby like. So we decided on a semi-attractive theme of blue flowers and clarified again "Not a birthday."

I paid and told them that my husband would pick it up at 5:00. I clarified that he would be a Meiguoren, just in case it wasn't clear.

So at five o'clock, Paul rides his bike over to pick it up. He brings it home and we open it. It's pretty, it's a good size and what does it say? Sheng Ri Kaui Le! Happy Birthday! In characters of course! We even got a birthday crown and candles.

Anyway, we laughed our heads off and were told that every foreigner has a story of trying to order a cake. The cake was delicious, the shower was fun and now we are just waiting for the new baby to be born.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Have we mentioned the cold?

Have we mentioned that it is cold in Shenyang? Really cold. Long underwear cold. Snow in November cold. Colder than summer in Holland (just kidding, mom!).

Here are some pictures to prove it.

Northface is our best friend.

Notice that the guys behind me have no hats, no gloves, and light jackets! It's below freezing! Knitter friends, my scarf is a clapotis knit with Uruguay yarn. I love it.

Street food in China is the best. These guys can warm us up with a kind of pancake filled with a fried egg. Kind of a Chinese Egg McMuffin for 2 kuai or about 25 cents.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The frogs

Some people have heard about the frogs that were on the table at a very special lunch that we ate at a Manchu village. Paul sat at the table with the men, and they replenished his plate with frogs several times. I sat at a table that had only a small social obligation to eat the frogs, and so only ate enough so that our host wouldn't be insulted.
Thanks to our sweet friends for these pictures.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

So what is different?

So what is different about our lives now?

So many things.....while some remain the same.

School and homework remain the same for Elisabeth. Yet her school is totally different-her classmates are Russian, Korean, American, German, Chinese. Her teacher's are Chinese, Chinese American, South African, TCK's.

Paul and I have homework. When I finished graduate school in 2007, I swore I would never go back to school. And yet here we are!

We no longer drive. I haven't driven since August 27. Paul hasn't driven since September 13. We ride bicycles most of the time-to get to language school, to shop, to go to friend's houses. For longer trips we take the bus or a taxi. The bus is 1 kuai or about 15 cents. Taxi's are a minimum of 8 kuai or a little more than a dollar.

We no longer shop in bulk. Food here has very few preservatives and must be eaten quickly. We can not carry large amounts of food on our bicycles. Our frig and freezer are too small for bulk shopping.

We no longer use hot water to wash our clothes. Our washing machine is set up for cold water only. We dry our clothes on an amazing pulley system clothesline that is inside of our house.

We no longer obey American traffic laws. In China, he who hesitates is lost...on a bicycle. Need to ride your bike on the wrong side of the street to get to where you need to go? No problem. Cross against a red light? Go ahead! Wear a helmet? Are you kidding?

We no longer use ATM's or our credit card for anything but getting cash out of China Construction Bank. This is a total cash society. We carry cash all the time.

Recycling- we don't do it any least not how we did it in America. Here, poor people take the bottles and return them for cash. We put our bottles in a separate plastic bag to make it easier for them.

No more Sunday morning gathering in a building. Only gathering with like minded people in different homes. It's different but good.

No more TV. We actually have one but we never watch it. We do watch some TV online when we need a mental break. Go Jim and Pam! Sweetest wedding ever!

We don't hear dogs, lawnmowers, birds or planes. We hear traffic, people talking, people spitting, construction across the street, fireworks, honking.

We still shop, cook, clean and do daily life...just with a different flavor.

We do know that the One we love and serve never changes...and that is a wonderful constant in our lives.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Language School

The main focus of our time in China right now is language and culture learning. Every morning, we get up and ride our bikes down Heping Blvd (Peace Blvd) to Langston. Langston is a private language school-their main focus is English but they have a fledgling Chinese program.
I(Sandy) am in the beginner's class. It's basically Ground Zero for Chinese learners. Even though I have been around Chinese speakers for years, I've learned almost nothing. It's helpful to have heard Chinese over the years though.
Our textbook is called Chinese Made Easier. It's really excellent. Elisabeth has a textbook called Chinese Made Easy, a name which I consider an absolute lie or at the least, oxymoronic.
We spent the first two weeks of class working on tones and Chinese phonetics. I am so thankful to have a background in linguistics and language learning as this really helps me understand language and the point of the lesson. But no back ground in the world can help me reproduce the four tones of Mandarin Chinese. I can hear them in my head (sometimes) but they don't always come out of my mouth.
If you do not have the right tone in Chinese, you do not have the right word. For example "Qingwen" in the 4th tone means "Excuse me." In a different tone, it means "Kiss me." So it is possible that I have said to taxi drivers "Kiss me, please pull over here."
We are now in lesson 5 of the conversations and so far have learned classroom supplies, fruits, vegetables and verbs give, have , want buy and sell. We are working on numbers, which makes me feel about five years old! It just takes study every day-We are in language study about 25 hours a week. This involves classroom time, working with a language helper an additional three hours a week and study.
Last week, we took a visitor to the Old Forbidden City. A sweet little girl came up to me and said in Chinese "Are you a foreigner?" (Ni shi Waiguoren?) "Yes. I answered." "I am American. Where are you from? " "China" she answered ( a little surprised). I was pretty proud of myself for this little exchange until later when I realized that I had used the wrong pronoun in the whole conversation.
Paul is in a much higher level class. For years, he has been told that he has pronunciation issues and now the chickens have come home to roost! His teacher's and language helper are really correcting him. It's good in some ways but very discouraging in others. He is very diligent in study and working very hard in and out of class.

Many people in Shenyang speak a rather strong dialect, which can be hard for us to understand. These are often the people that we speak to- the taxi drivers and people who work in the markets.
Language learning is critical to our life in China. While we have worked with English Language learners for many years, this experience of living in another country while learning the language has given us a whole new level of empathy. It's just so exhausting to figure things out when you are at a lower level of language. In order to get meet, you have to talk to the butcher. In order to get fruit or vegetables, you have to talk to the fruit and vegetable people. In order to get anywhere, you have to talk to the taxi driver! It's great bonding with our new culture and we have plenty of people to help us, but it still can be a challenge.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Two months

We've been in China almost two months now. Our lives have changed in ways that are hard to describe. We have gone from being cultural brokers to immigrants in our community in the US to needing cultural brokers here in China. We have gone from being the authorities on language and culture in the US to being learners of culture and language here. We are dependent in ways that we have never been before.

We moved from a small three bedroom house with a large yard to a small three bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of our building-no elevator.

Instead of teaching language and culture every day, we get up and go to language school every day. We learn our new culture as we ride our bikes, go to the market, buy vegetables and fresh meat almost every day and eat wonderful, cheap food in our neighborhood restaurants.

As newcomers, everything feels really difficult. Getting furniture meant four separate trips to the furniture market, lots of bargaining and people delivering it to our home. It meant being followed through out the market with people trying to get us to buy their furniture and hire their trucks. It meant being overwhelmed by choices of sofas, mattresses, bedroom furniture and tables. It was a loud, tiring and confusing experience and one I don't really want to repeat.

Except that we need a desk and rug!

Shenyang is a huge city of seven million. We are surrounded by people all the time. The sheer number of people causes behaviors that in our culture we define as rude. People get cut off in traffic all the time- bikes, taxi's, buses, cars, scooters. The right of way is a kind of survival of the fittest. People push, shove and bump into each other...and there is no real way to say "Excuse me." Rude? In some contexts. We have to separate culture from what is rude behavior. We have to look at these behaviors through cultural lenses that promote understanding rather than criticism.

It's exhausting being here. The noise is constant-honking, traffic, people, construction. Not speaking the language is exhausting. Yet people are wonderfully patient and helpful. The people at the market will repeat prices for me until I pretend to understand and just hand them the money. Our language teacher's are kind and patient.

We have a strong sense of purpose being here. Thanks to all who helped us get here!