Hi friends, here are four emails from my China trip. I came home so grateful for all we have in the United States, especially blue skies and sun.
May 30, 2013Hello from China,I’ve been here for a week, and I am loving it. I feel very comfortable here, maybe because I am cushioned by the group or maybe because it's somewhere in my blood or past lives. It's a wonderful place. The group is ten plus two teachers, a great size. There’s an older couple and me and seven younger students. We spent three days in Shanghai, which is quite like a big American city, or maybe more European, except the signs are Chinese (and English, for the most part). Everything is inexpensive in China except if you want to buy an apartment or register a car. Within the first five minutes our Shanghai guide taught us how to recognize counterfeit money (“Chinese people are very good at counterfeit money.”) China is very capitalist in the cities. There are acres of high-rises; it is development gone wild. It’s shocking, like cancer. Traffic in the city part of Shanghai is nuts, cars everywhere driving six inches from each other, plus bicycles, plus bicycles with platforms or bins on them to carry stuff, plus motorcycles and motorcycles with bins on them to carry stuff, plus scooters, plus people. Lots of accidents on the freeways; most drivers are new drivers. The bikes and scooters and motorcycles often go the wrong way on the streets, so you have to really really watch out when crossing the street. It is wild.Our first excursion was the Shanghai Museum, beautiful and spectacular, a very new and modern building. We saw amazing paintings, calligraphy, stunning jades, one oracle bone, old seals, great sculpture, and bronzes. Then we paid a visit to Yu Garden, a Ming dynasty gentleman's garden, beautiful scenes at every turn, rocks and more rocks!The food is delicious and inexpensive. Each meal is better than the last. Dumplings! There is always beer or coke or sprite (they seem to like sprite here, go figure) with dinner. A fantastic huge dinner is about $5. I am ruined for Chinese food in America.Another day we visited a Ming water canal town outside of Shanghai, very charming. Driving there, out of the town and traffic, we saw tiny farms right next to factories next to high-rise apartments. There were farmers spreading their wheat in the parking lots and on the smaller roads for drying, all by hand, and women transporting farm stuff on bicycles with carriers behind them. There were fishing boats on the water. In China there is a constant juxtaposition of old and new. People in the country are very poor.We saw the Shanghai Chinese acrobat show, spectacular.Then we flew to Xian, the ancient capital until a few hundred years ago, and a place with so much history. It is a much smaller town (only 2 million people), less development though it is still there. The oldest central part of the town is surrounded by high, wide stone walls that were built in the Ming dynasty to protect the emperor. Some of the wall is restored, and some is original. You can bike or walk the eight miles around. Each side has huge entrance tunnels through which all traffic in and out of town drives. I found it very touching to pass through those walls. Beside all the development, it is good to see that the country is also trying to maintain some of the history. The government is not allowing further development inside the old Xian walls, for instance.The Shaangxi Museum there had great ancient stuff, from the oldest dynasties, including lots of great old weapons and swords. The museum was packed, all Chinese people, interested in their history. I can’t imagine a history museum in America so crowded.We went to a dumpling banquet and a Tang dynasty music and dance show.We spent a morning with the terracotta warriors, such a sight to behold, truly a wonder. The government has developed the site a lot, with new buildings for each of the three pits that are opened. There were many visitors there, 99% Chinese. Then we spent the afternoon at a lovely Buddhist temple.We flew to Beijing where we will have the rest of the program. We are staying at Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), a prestigious art institute, in the international student dorms, a lot like tai chi camp. So we’re not exactly tourists now. The tourist part was packed and tiring, and the pace is slower now so I have time to write. We have some half-days of classes (tai chi, language, history, painting, music, film etc.) and will have some excursions (Great Wall, national art museum, national opera house, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and such). We’re here two more weeks, then home.So we’re learning tai chi from Lisa, a cute young teacher from the Beijing Sports Academy. It’s yang 24 movements, taught outdoors in the morning. Very interesting indeed, two classes so far. No shoulder width. Back leg straight in what we would call 70/30 (she calls “bow stance”). Lots of wrists bent back, especially lower hand (“Press!”) For brush knee, the forward hand also broken back (“Push!”). Never a mention of relaxation. Lots of “hold ball.” Shifting weight is “change gravity.” Postures are called styles (“We are going to learn two new styles today.”) No mention of tan tien. She has some good teaching techniques. She shows it, then we practice arm and leg movements separately. Then we do it with her a few times; she shows, we do. Then we have to do it by ourselves with her giving some hints and watching us. By the end we have to do it by ourselves as a group. I can see the value in having to do it without a leader. It has helped me to remember it. In the second class, we had to do it in pairs with her watching at the end of class, and she gave each person some personal feedback. We have six more classes in tai chi.The dining halls on campus are an experience. Nothing is labeled in English and the servers don’t speak much English. Chinese people eat some seriously weird things for breakfast. I don’t even know what some of that stuff is. Today we found the noodle bar at lunch, where they make the noodles right there, cook them, put them with veggies and meat and broth. It is a huge delicious bowl for 10 yuan, about $1.75. They gave us a meal card for campus loaded with some money, and also gave us back some program cash so that we have the option to eat other places in town. That’s a nice way to do it I think. If we spend less than they gave us we keep it. If we spend more, it’s out of our pockets.For a place supposedly so modern and technological, the state of internet access is a puzzle. The hotel in Shanghai only had ethernet, and even that kept going in and out. Our Xian hotel, quite a nice one, also had only ethernet, no wifi except in lobby. The campus, a prestigious art college, has wifi, though it isn’t very fast and also can disappear. Skype is maddening; calls are often dropped. Though I am grateful for having the ability to talk to home.I’ll write more when I can and share photos when I get home.Love to all of you,EdnaPS. There are a LOT of Chinese people here.PPS. Everything you have ever heard about Chinese toilets is true.
May 31, 2013
So I either have a cold or my sinuses are reacting to the bad air, and my eyes are very irritated and itchy. I don't feel quite right, mostly because of my eyes, and I slept three hours this afternoon. So I'm keeping my a/c on for the night.
So I went to the pharmacy!! Got some Bi Yan Pian ("for nose") little yellow tablets sealed in plastic and those sealed in foil. Very cheap, 36 tabs for 14 yuan, two dollars and change. Also got some gan mao ("for cold"). They didn't have ling, only ganmao qingre keli, which are granules to put in warm water. Ten packets were expensive, 48 yuan, or $8.
They were very nice at the pharmacy, and one lady spoke some English. My purchases were OTC so I did not deal with the pharmacists. I did ask to take pictures since they happened to be filling a prescription. I took a couple of pictures of the pharmacist with his measuring scales, little piles of herbs in front of him, then packaging them in little pieces of paper. I took another picture of the wall of drawers, and also one of the entire wall of ginseng.
I also navigated the 7-11 for dental floss and batteries. I am very proud of myself!
Tai chi and language was great again. Then we had a lecture on contemporary Chinese art from this wonderful man with such an open heart. I really liked him. He is the head of the international program here and travels all over the world to network for CAFA. He showed lots of slides of contemporary art and talked about how in the old days if you were born a farmer you stayed a farmer, never able to travel. Then when the development started, there was a massive movement of farmers to the cities to become construction workers, who were paid very low wages and couldn't afford to live in what they built. But suddenly they were free to travel and change their identity, and the whole fabric of society started to change. He said they call it the hidden revolution. He showed some wonderful sculpture from people who used to be farmers, and sculpture by a guy who used to be in the military. This contemporary art isn't common or very popular, as is true in US, but artists can freelance and there is a market for their art, since collectors from the west are taking notice and buying it. Also there are many noted female artists now.
June 6, 2013
This weekend we went to the Beijing National Museum and to the Great Wall, the Mutianyu section that is further from Beijing than other sections and thus less crowded.
The museum was wonderful, older art and contemporary art. The theme of the contemporary exhibit was, "Along With the Times," though I'm not sure exactly what that means. There were wonderful traditional paintings. Maybe most interesting was "The Revolutionary Memory" rooms, with paintings and sculptures celebrating the triumphant worker as well as depicting the immense suffering of the times.
The Great Wall is up in the mountains, a long drive from Beijing. Along the way we saw larger farms than outside of Shanghai, but nothing like the US. As in other areas, there were huge electrical towers carrying many electrical wires, all above ground. I never saw one of them that didn't have orchards, farms, homes and businesses right underneath them.
To get to the wall you drive up into the mountains, then walk up a paved road up a steep hill, often with stairs, then take a hair-raising cable car ride straight up. The part we saw was from the Ming dynasty and is very well preserved. Once on the wall it goes up and down, hills and stairs, along the mountains. The smog was terrible, as it has been since I got here, so you couldn't see very far at all. We had two days in Beijing with blue skies and low humidity; the rest have had air that is terribly polluted here and many of us have had sinus troubles.
There is a large platform below where you step onto the wall, and there were 30 or so young people (age 18 or so?), boys and girls, all in matching red t-shirts, socializing and having a wonderful time. Eventually they all lined up, raised right fists, and recited a pledge with the Chinese flag held up in front. Our guide told us they were joining the communist party.
Last night I experienced a quintessential Chinese thing, a traditional foot massage. I had heard that they were wonderful, so I asked Yifei our teacher where to go. He took I and another student to check out two possible places, both within two blocks of the school. One was very simple and clean, and I liked the person who welcomed us very much. The other was fancier and more expensive, and the people were much more standoffish. So we chose the less expensive place and were glad we did.
I asked Yifei if only women got foot massages, and he said that actually men go more often. In fact, businessmen have meetings at foot massage places. When he goes home in the summer in the south his friends welcome him with a foot massage gathering.
So he helped us by talking to them about price and what we wanted, and so on, and stayed until we got started. First we sat on sort of hassocks and put our feet into a tub of warm herbal tea and they brought us tea to drink. Each of us had our own massage person, neither of whom spoke any English. While we were soaking, the ladies massaged our shoulders, back, neck and head, while clothed, for about 15 minutes. It was an excellent massage, deep and vigorous. Then our feet were out of the bath and we reclined on tables with raised backs and got our feet and calves massaged every which way you could imagine for about 45 minutes. I loved it. Total price...around $10. China has no tax and no tips: I can get used to this.
Afterwards the young receptionist asked us to sit with her. Turns out she is studying English and wanted to talk with us. She had a computer program that was saying Chinese and then English for her to practice. I don't remember all of the sentences, but two jumped out at me: "Can I get you another whiskey?" and "I'd like to show you around the factory." All the things you need to know how to say in English.
Anyhow we had a great time and ended up sharing iPhone apps to learn English and Chinese. It was a great experience. I'm going back before I come home.
I like being off the tourist path. Tonight I had dinner with Yifei my teacher and we went to a hole in the wall restaurant down the street, one of a string of maybe eight tiny restaurants all next to each other, all Chinese food. There are very, very few restaurants in China that aren't Chinese food. We walked by them and he said, "This one is food from the northwest of China...this one is from the northeast...this one is from the south, Sichuan...etc. Each one had a different regional cuisine. Two dishes plus rice and beer was 39 yuan, around $3.50 each. Delicious too.
Most of the menus in the restaurants have pictures of the dishes, not just words, and show the price, so I can easily go back there myself or with others from the program. It's been good to be here at the school because we have to navigate stores, restaurants, foot massage places and the like. I've purchased a couple of things from the art store. Most people speak at least a little bit of English because they learn it in school, but they don't practice it much.
There is a Starbuck's sort of store across the street, Pacific Coffee. It is quite expensive for here, 30 yuan, $5 for a tall latte or frozen coffee drink. Coffee is ka fei. Chocolate is qiao ke li. As you can see, Chinese is very easy.
June 12, 2013
Some impressions of China 2013:
Capitalism and developmentChina is very capitalist. Our teacher Yifei says that China has adopted the worst of capitalism. Everyone is selling something. The markets are full of people hawking stuff. Even the students here have flea markets outside. Restaurants and groceries have fixed costs, as do the more expensive stores, but most other shopping involves bargaining, which I hate to do, but by necessity I’ve gotten better at it. It can be fun to brag about what a good deal you just got. Everywhere there is materialistic development gone wild next to beautiful and quality old things:Factories right next to farms right next to apartment buildings…Farms and homes directly underneath giant electrical towers full of wires…Farmers outside of Shanghai spreading their wheat on the roads and parking lots so the cars will drive over it and separate it; then they gather it up and transport it by bicycle…Modern campus of stone bricks, and outdoor cleaners sweeping with brooms made of twigs with a bamboo handle…Outside the Olympic bird’s nest stadium, cleaners sweeping with twig brooms…Acupuncture street-front clinic with neon signs all over the window and a moving neon sign of characters above the door…MacDonald’s next to the herbal pharmacy…In the art district, a beautiful old Chinese double door with a brand new scooter and an ancient bicycle parked right in front…
Beijing is huge, 20 million people. Traffic is unbelievably awful. We noticed there were no old cars and no pickup trucks and found out that neither is allowed in Beijing. When a car gets to a certain age, it has to go to the country.We saw colossal ultra-modern office buildings all over downtown. A two-bedroom apartment can cost two million dollars.Beijing is a very international city. We went to the opera house to see a French ballet called La Peri, a fairy tale set in Iran, performed by the German national ballet company. You have probably seen the National Center for the Performing Arts, a stunning building that has a moat around it, looks like a big egg, and has three theaters in it. The government owns ALL the land. One hundred percent. You buy a house or apartment, but never the land underneath, which you rent for a certain period of time. So if the government wants the land back, y0u have to go. Farmers rent their farms and never own them, so the government can take them back also. That’s why the development has been so dramatic, because the government can do whatever it wants.
Free speechIn the cities people are mostly allowed to say what they want and to have opinions about policy. Speech is much less controlled than it was in the 80’s and 90’s. Of course they can’t write anything against policy: the government controls all media. And nothing can happen in public. Our guides in Shanghai and Xian did not work for the government, but for travel agencies, which are either privately owned or joint private-government ventures. Our Xian guide said that she is allowed to say, “In my opinion…” to a question about policy…except in Tiananmen Square. Because it is the symbol of the government, she can only state facts of policy there. If someone overheard her saying otherwise, she could lose her job. There were police and army all over Tiananmen Square, whereas there were few anywhere else that we went. There were security guards on campus, in our hotels, and at tourist sites. Outside of the cities it is generally not as free, since you have the local government to contend with.
Communist PartyThe government has absolute power. People pay income taxes, according to our teacher Yifei, but they don’t really realize they do because it is taken away before they get paid and they don’t know how much it is (up to 40%). So they have no sense of ownership in the government. The government does not provide health care; you must pay for it as you need it. You must pay for your pension out of your salary. There is a tiny safety net now for old people with no family, though they get paid a very minimal monthly amount. When I told Yifei about the students we saw joining the communist party, he said, “Terrible! Brainwashing!” Yes, they might get better jobs, he said, but then they get money and get corrupt. “China has a big problem…there is a lot of corruption.” Our language teacher Dan Dan told me that most people do not join the party, though it is necessary to join order to work for the government. Yifei has no love for the communists. His father worked for the nationalist government, fighting the Japanese when they invaded China, which made it very difficult for his whole family when the communists took over. He is now in his mid-50’s. When he was 16, he was sent to the country during the Cultural Revolution and had to work on a farm (“backbreaking labor and sometimes no food”) for six years. So his life and education were interrupted. There was no alternative at the time; there was no other choice for him. His mother was a teacher, and he eventually was able to return home and train to be a teacher. He ended up living in America. Yifei believes that the new Chinese leader is more like Mao than Deng, more traditionally communist, and is more likely to take the country backward rather than forward.
Confucianism/Daoism/BuddhismConversation with Shanghai guide Zhou Yan:EB. Is it true Confucianism is coming back in China?ZY. Yes it is. It helps you to be a better person and to live better with other people. People need that.EB. Are many people Buddhist?ZY. When they want something they are…EB. Are many people Daoist?ZY. Well not so many…Daoist philosophy is…very impractical. Xian tour guide Kathy:Confucius is definitely coming back in China. There are temples, and the one in Xian is now a museum, with old tablets of texts preserved. Most people don’t practice Buddhism per se, but they do drop by the temple to pray, “just in case.” The God of Heaven is a Chinese addition to Buddhism, not original to India. He keeps you safe from ghosts by trampling on them. Also Guan Yin is a Chinese addition of a female Buddha, to attract female worshipers. There are also Daoist temples in China.
Western and Chinese medicineShanghai guide Zhou Yan: People can choose the western or the Chinese hospital. All doctor’s offices are in the hospital; there are no private clinics. Doctors train for seven to eight years. They are paid by the government and get a commission on how much medication they sell. “Everyone wants to be a doctor.” EB. Which do people prefer? ZY. Most people prefer Chinese medicine because it can cure your disease instead of just fixing your symptoms.EB. Which do you prefer? ZY. I prefer Chinese medicine. Of course I prefer no doctors at all. I prefer drinking more water to taking a pill. Xian guide CathyBecause of the stresses of my job, when I get sick I prefer Western medicine because it is faster. In the off-season, I prefer Chinese medicine because it gets to the cause. Even though it is slower than western medicine, it is better because it goes to the root. My mother prefers Chinese medicine.
College lifeIn the afternoons on campus our younger students often played basketball on the outdoor courts. Sometimes the Chinese students gathered to watch, laugh, and take photos—because boys and girls were playing together. Lisa our tai chi teacher told us that some girls play basketball, but not so many, and never with boys. “Boys are strong!” She herself plays basketball, and in fact her major at the Beijing Sports Academy is basketball. She will be a physical education teacher. She comes from the very south of China, near Vietnam. It takes her 40 hours on the train to go home. I asked our language teacher Dan Dan if students who graduate have to find their own jobs. She said that ten or twenty years ago, there were few college graduates and the government would give them jobs. Now there are many college graduates, and they need to find their own jobs. There is a national college entrance exam that all high school seniors take, and then the better schools also have their own examinations. The school we stayed at, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, is very expensive, costing the equivalent of $40,000 per year tuition. The regular student dorms house six people per room in bunk beds, and they have to use communal showers in another building to bathe. We in the international dorms have the luxury of double rooms (I paid extra for a single) and individual bathrooms (with western toilets).
FoodDelicious. Every area has its own specialties and most of them have restaurants in the big cities. It is ever so much lighter than Chinese food in America, much less salty and with little soy sauce. It is difficult to be a vegetarian in China, since the Chinese can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t eat meat. Restaurant dishes listed as vegetable may still come with a little meat. In the cities most menus come with a big color picture of each dish so you can see it. Good thing, since some of the English translations are puzzling to say the least. Here are some of our favorites, most of which looked delicious and most of which we didn’t eat, I hope:Dish cap combinationBumpkins eggplantInvestigate the benefits of chamomile salad (peanut)The small cephalomappa of Hunan tasteSecret system of hairtailBeijing accent burst duck breastOld Beijing nostalgia peach kernel chickenThe old Beijing gurgle tofuOld Beijing fried enema (what??)Old pineapple pluck pulpChicken public hotpot in ChongqingLocal flavour roasts lute legOil drenches the camphor tree tea duckMountain city hair blood is flourishingAll colors pull the skinThe bean curd rolls up a peasant familyThe hemp burns duck intestinesTibial sauceSpicy gluttonous frog Greedy bullfrogStir-fry a bullfrogRed dates bakes of a leg for mealsFirst rank is usually stir-friedBoiler baby food (!!!)
PollutionIs the air as bad as they say? Oh, yes, even worse, at least in the cities. Some days better, some terrible, never clear. In 23 days in China we saw the sun three times. Though there were a lot of sunny days, the grey/white air pollution covered the sun. When we flew into Xian we could see a big grey cloud hovering over the city. Even out of the city in the mountains at the Great Wall the air was so bad you could hardly see anything in the distance. Mostly it was in the high 80s in the day, humid and mostly comfortable enough in the mornings and evenings. It rained quite a bit also, which we welcomed because it cooled the air down and cleaned it a little. Because the air is so bad, the surface of everything outside is dirty. When our younger students played basketball, the ball turned grey and their hands turned black from what the ball picked up from the court floor. There was however nearly no litter. Beijing surely cleaned up for the Olympics, though it was just as tidy in Xian and Shanghai. We saw people all over the place sweeping the sidewalks and streets with bamboo twig brooms.
I’m mostly packed and leaving for home tomorrow afternoon. It’s about 22 hours door to door, about 16 hours actually flying, first to Toronto and then to Maryland. I hope I see you all soon. I will share pictures when I sort them out.