Saturday, October 7, 2017

Happy Golden Week

October 1 is the China National holiday and the Mid-Autumn Festival happens during the first week in October. These two holidays combined create what the Chinese call Golden Week. There are a variety of ways the Golden Week is celebrated across this huge nation, but they all have one thing in common.

THE ENTIRE COUNTRY GOES ON VACATION!!!
That is not a joke. It really happens. It's like someone pulled the Godzilla fire alarm for China and everyone is scrambling to get out. It's crazy. Roads are clogged, airlines and trains are packed and there are no hotels with vacancies in any bordering countries.

We actually moved here a year ago just as Golden Week was starting. However, (at that time) we had no idea it even existed. We just thought Beijing was a huge ghost town. Public transportation wasn't running, shops were closed and we couldn't get basic services turned on in our new apartment. No one was around to do anything.

But this year, we were ready for it and happily joined in the chaotic migration. We just returned from Qingdao. Qingdao sits on the coast of the Yellow Sea about 425 miles southeast of Beijing. We enjoyed sitting on the beach, seeing the sites, eating tons of seafood and relaxing in a small city for a while.

Now, when I say 'small', I mean small by Chinese standards. Qingdao is often referred to by Chinese people as a small city. Small. Remember that word.

That's right, 9 MILLION people.
Small, right?

Now, let's compare that to the American definition of the word 'small'.

Here is the population of Chicago, the largest city in the state I am from in America.

 That's over THREE TIMES the size of Chicago.
Even New York (America's biggest city) only has 8.5 million.


So, we vacationed in this 'small' city and had a blast. We were near the home of famed Chinese philosopher Confucius. We were at the site of the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the shadow of the most revered mountain of Taoism Mount Tai. However, being the shallow Americans we are with virtually no sense of history, we gravitated toward our interests.

TSINGTAO Beer Museum

The Wall of Beer
The Birthplace of Beer Culture
That is a bold statement

Tsingtao beer is basically the equivalent to what Budweiser is in America. It is huge here and is sold in over 100 countries around the world. Apparently, this region was under German control for 16 years at the beginning of the 20th Century before being run out by the Japanese during World War I. Once the Germans were gone, the Chinese kept the only part of the German culture they liked: the beer. We might have been in the old stomping grounds of Confucius, but it was Confucius who said "Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!"

Who can argue with 2,500 year old Chinese wisdom?

When we weren't downing all the local adult beverages, we were eating mountains of seafood since we were on the coast and walking along the beach. Once again, because we were on the coast.

On our way back from Qingdao the traffic started getting a bit thick so we had to grab another hotel to keep from driving all night. We got the only hotel out in the middle of nowhere in a tiny little town called Huanghua (pop. 419,700).

The lobby of Shengtai International Hotel

Our modest room

That same room from the other side.
Notice the window to the bathtub.

I made these friends when they saw me
sitting alone in the bar.

The view from our hotel room

Front entrance to the hotel

Now, this may look extravagant, but it is not my normal style of travel. Things in China are significantly cheaper than in the States. A night at this hotel cost us about $85 USD and it cost that much because the hotel is built right on top of natural hot springs, so there is a hot spring spa on the ground floor! The closest I ever got to something like this in the States was using the hairdryer in the bathroom with the door closed.

Today, I am back in my cramped Beijing apartment choking on smog I have to chew before inhaling and wondering if I will ever be happy again.

I'm already looking forward to Chinese New Year. That holiday lasts for the entire month of February.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

One Year Down...Don't Know How Many To Go

According to my "On This Day" section of Facebook, Red and I landed in China one year ago today.

September 27, 2016

The first few months were really rough, but we survived. And now that we've been here a year, I can mark Item #166 off my Bucket List. Live overseas for one year.

Click here to see the full list.

The year has flown by at an incredible pace. It seems like we just left the States.

There is still much that we are getting used to and miscommunications still happen daily, but we have gotten pretty comfortable with our lives here. We know how to do the things we need and want to do. Difficulties come less and less often and when they do occur, we can usually figure out what we need to do. Plus, we now have a bigger network of friends we can call for help if the need arises.

Many people have asked us when we will be coming back and we have a pretty simple answer for that.

We have no idea.

Here's what we do know. When we got here a year ago, we signed a three year lease on our apartment. That means...

Let's see...3 minus 1
...we have two years left on our lease. My wife just signed a two year contract with her employer and I'll be signing a new contract at the end of this year. So, we are committed to two more years. After that, who knows? We may decide to stay longer or we may not. However, we are fairly certain that even if we do leave China, we will not be coming back to the States. It will be time to try out another country for a while. We have a few we've been checking out, but haven't gotten very serious about it yet since it's still at least two years off.

In the meantime, we're just enjoying where we are now.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Alcohol-Infused Education

In a few more days, I will have been in China for an entire year. A year. An entire freaking year! Wow. Time really flies. Now, you would think that in that year I would have gotten used to China and all the ways it is different from America, but you'd be wrong.

Kind of like that uncle who always bites down on his fork and then drags it through his teeth as he removes it and you can feel the metal screeching against his enamel and it's piercing every square inch of your spine. You've had the same reaction ever since the first time you noticed it at Thanksgiving dinner when you were six and now it is almost 40 years later and it is just as irritating as the first time it happened except now all the little diodes in your brain are extra sensitive from overuse caused by the Trump administration and the upcoming second season of Stranger Things, so his grating feels like those inflamed diodes are being scraped by one of those metal tooth hook tools used by the same dentist who tells you to keep metal away from your teeth. Just can't get used to it.

Last week, I was teaching in one of my 4th grade classes and I mentioned that I was going to Qingdao for the upcoming mid-Autumn Festival. Several of the kids got excited and one jumped up and shouted, "Teacher, do you drink beer?"

I thought this was an odd question to come from a nine-year-old. Especially when directed to a teacher. I paused for a moment and said, "Sometimes." A murmur started through the entire class as they smiled and nodded. The child who was still standing proudly said, "You can drink beer in Qingdao."

Once again, that's an odd statement. You can drink beer pretty much anywhere. There are bars and liquor stores in Beijing just like there are in the States. He spoke up again, "Qingdao has some very famous beer."

Okay. That makes a little more sense. This is a city that is actually known for its beer. I get it, but why do kids this young care about this? I changed the subject because it just felt wrong to discuss my alcohol habits with my students. Particularly at this age.

I told the kids to open their books, but a student in the back interjected, "Qingdao beer is very good. I love it." I cheerily called him out, "You don't drink beer."

Oh...okay (wink).

He shot me a look that clearly said, "What are you talking about?" I was playing with the kid, but I suddenly realized that I don't think I know what's going on here. Hands started going up around the room.

"I drink beer."
"I like beer."
"We have it every night at dinner"

Now, I am not appalled at the idea that a child has tasted beer. Here is a picture of me at 14 months old. I really didn't seem to mind.

I moved on from PABST before my teenage years.

Almost every kid I grew up with had a taste of their parents' drink at some point, but this was different. I could tell they weren't bragging that they had gotten to drink an adult beverage. They seemed genuinely confused that I would even question this.

When I got home, I looked up the drinking age in China and discovered that it is 18 as it is in most of the world. However, it only seems to apply to the purchase of alcohol, not consumption. And even the purchasing restriction is not a law, but a regulation. A regulation that isn't really enforced.

In the first month I was here, I was out with a friend who had his preschooler with him. When our drinks arrived, the boy reached for his dad's glass of wine. His dad held it so he could try it in order to help the child discover that he didn't like it and wouldn't want it any more. As he was doing this, my eyes were anxiously darting around the restaurant to make sure no one was seeing this. You don't do this in the States!

My friend saw me getting nervous and laughed it off. "No one cares here," he said.

I've learned that he was correct. Drinking is looked at differently in various parts of the world.

I'm not suggesting that the kids here are alcoholics.


Or even that they spend all their spare time chugging beer with their friends. They don't.


But there is a distinct difference in attitude. For example, here's a picture of my wife's pencil case that I have seen many students have.

ROUGH TRANSLATION:
I just want to get drunk.

This is a common phrase here that is used in the same way a white girl in America might say "I can't even".

It's these differences in thinking that are the most difficult to adjust to. The Chinese attitude toward almost everything is typically very different than the attitude in the West. This applies to marriage, money, time, manners, medicine, diet, hygiene, work expectations, friendship and basically anything you can think of.

I love my life here, but don't know that I'll ever reach the point that I don't feel like a foreigner.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Chinese Lessons - 中文课

Summer is almost over and I start teaching again on Monday. All my free time is about to evaporate. It will be nice to have something outside the apartment to do again. However, it really takes away from the task I have poured myself into all summer.

Red and I have been taking Chinese language lessons.

After living in China for almost a year and being essentially clueless about everything the entire time, we've decided to finally tackle the language.

I've made and memorized hundreds of flashcards.

I have notebooks filled with pages
of practiced Chinese characters

As I mentioned in a previous post about learning Chinese (click here), there are literally thousands of characters to learn. And so many of them seem to make the same sound when pronounced. The difference is very subtle. And for the many that actually do make the exact same sound, you just have to pull the correct meaning from context. From context. In a language I am already clueless about. This seems more and more like an insurmountable task, but I'm tackling it anyway.

Despite its difficulty, learning Chinese definitely has it moments. For example, last week I learned the character 太. This is a very simple character that pops up quite often. It is an adverb that basically means 'too'. If something is too much or too loud, you would use the character 太.


However, almost every character can be paired with another character to create an entirely different word. For example, the character 天 (day or sky) when paired with the character 气 (air) produces 天气 (weather). It makes sense.

Here are a few others:

女(female) + 人(person) = 女人(woman)
买(to buy) + 电(electricity) = 买电 (power bill)
长(long) + 大(big) = 长大 (grow up)

Pairing two characters together to make another word prevents having to create a separate character just for that one word. Since there are already thousands (have I mentioned there are thousands?) of characters to learn, I am less suicidal very grateful for that. Especially when you see some of the entertaining pairings. Earlier, I explained that 太 means 'too; overly; excessive', but what happens when you pair it with itself.  e.g. "overly excessive.

太 (too) + 太 (too) = 太太 (wife)

There is no explanation needed here.
The joke writes itself.
The married guys get it.

Since I can now recognize some (0.0000417%) of the characters, all the signs and ads around the city have words that jump out at me. This means that they are starting to make a little more sense.

This is one of the stops on a subway near my house.


Before taking Chinese lessons, I only saw this as Dawanglu, but I have since learned that 路 (Lu) is a word for street or road. So, it's Dawang Street. I've also learned that 大 (da) means 'big'. That means that this subway stop is for Big Wang Street and who isn't curious about a big wang? And whose wang was SOOOOO big they named a street after it?

Because I can only recognize some of the characters on a sign, I have to try to infer the meaning through context. For example, here is a sign that is outside a construction area near our apartment.


Now, I can't tell you exactly what it says, but knowing enough of the words paired with the context of the surroundings means I can deduce the general meaning.

In the middle of the day,
a person who is 21 must go out to get beer.

It is good to know that the construction company takes care of its workers, but does it in a legal way.

For weeks, I've seen this (↓↓↓) advertisement on the wall in the subway station and never had any idea what the product was for.


After this week's lesson, I now recognize the last two characters on the ad. I'm not positive about exactly what each word is, but I feel that I finally understand its purpose.

人 (person)
生(to be born)

This ad seems to be urging people to consider traveling to the mountains to have their babies on this beautiful waterfront. It's an excellent marketing campaign.

Until I can read and speak every word that I see, I must keep my nose in the books and practice with every Chinese person I meet. And there is no shortage of Chinese people in Beijing.



Here's how most lessons seem to go.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to Basics

We moved to Beijing on September 27, 2016 and earlier this month we went back to the States for the first time since moving here. Despite the Trump presidency and everything we've been told in the media, the country was still there and we got some much needed work done.

It was great to get to see family again, but this trip was intentionally planned to serve two main purposes. We needed to empty out our storage unit and sell Red's car.

We had a 5x5 foot storage unit in Indianapolis full of all sorts of stuff we couldn't decide what to do with when we first came to China. When we moved here a year ago, we literally brought three suitcases with us. That's it. Our entire lives were condensed down to what could fit into three suitcases. That is all we brought to Beijing.

To get it down to so little, we got rid of tons of stuff.
  • Threw crap into the dumpster
  • Took truckloads of furniture and clothes to Goodwill
  • Donated to food pantries and shelters
  • Contacted people in neighboring apartments to come see what they wanted
  • Cried out to people on Facebook to take things off our hands
  • Posted sales flyers in the laundry room to unload furniture
  • Gave dozens of bottles of liquor to wandering vagrants

However, there were items that we just couldn't part with despite knowing that we couldn't bring them with us. And items that we didn't want to pitch if we were going to be coming back in a year. That was part of our dilemma.

We were going to China almost completely blind. We knew frighteningly little about what we were getting into. We had encountered endless difficulties getting straight answers to the questions we asked and had encountered a quagmire of legal chaos in obtaining the gargantuan amount of paperwork required to work in China. We had no idea if this venture was going to pan out and how long we would be staying which made it difficult to decide what to do with our stuff.

See, if we were going to be back in a year, it would have sucked to come back to nothing and have to start watching for abandoned furniture on the side of the road again. However, we couldn't take on the expense of shipping it all to China if everything is just going to fall apart and we were going to have to ship it right back again in a year. Since we didn't know how long it would take to track down a Chinese fortune teller once we got here, we decided to get a storage unit and come back in one year to empty it. At that point, we should know what we are doing and will be able to make better decisions about our belongings.

Something happened on this trip that I hadn't expected. We ended up just pitching about 75% of the stuff that we originally thought we couldn't live without. After going without that stuff for an entire year and never really giving it a second thought, we realized that most of it was just stuff. We really didn't need it. We tossed it in dumpsters, gave more stuff away, and made many more generous donations to Goodwill. We ran up to Red's sister's house to leave a few things with her (family cedar chest, dresser drawers, and a few other things), but once again got our "needed" belongings down to a few suitcases. However, this time we don't feel like we left anything behind. We have everything that we need.

Plus, everything is so cheap in China, we can just buy stuff here if we need it. That's how I got my panda.

After we got our stuff taken care of, we found a buyer for Red's car. So now, we don't have a car sitting in the States that we are still making car payments on.

No car payment + no car insurance + no storage unit fee = about $400/month

Now I can buy more pandas.