Busy Three-day Weekend

Monday, April 5th: Thanks so much to those of you have been posting comments and sending email: I really enjoy hearing from you and I’m happy to share my experiences.

The final three school days of last week were marked by more grade 7 lessons where we performed English skits. Once I started using smaller groups (4-6 kids each) we did get some very entertaining scripts and performances. Many kids are too shy to perform (fear of public speaking and/or poor English skills are at play) but others must be dragged off the stage. I will include a video here so you can get the flavor of their unbridled joy in performing the skits. I always congratulated the kids on their English skills and used pieces of their dialog to help point out where they could improve. For example, instead of “Give me!” you should say “Give it to me” and, instead of “I very like…… “ you should say “I like…… very much.” I believe part of the reason the kids are so excited to have me here is they are able to field test their English skills. It’s much easier to believe you are really learning to speak English if you can communicate with a native speaker. I share this feeling – when I am able to communicate with someone here who speaks no English, it’s very exciting. English and Chinese are so different that even a small amount of communication ability feels like a real achievement.

On Thursday, April 1, I was scheduled for four afternoon lessons but was surprised to learn my final three lessons would have to be cancelled. I was told this was because all 1000 grade 7 students would be spending the afternoon marching across the river to a cemetery where they would “sweep the graves of their ancestors.” I asked to tag along and was glad I did. We assembled on the school playground where each class formed two long lines, one with girls and one with boys. As the first class left the playground, the next class fell in behind, creating a long (1/3 mile?) line of students marching two-abreast. We filed through the school’s front gate and then along the local streets toward the bridge that crosses the large river behind the school. It was a long day. We left about 3:15 and didn’t get back until 5:45, just in time for dinner. We must have walked about 4 to 5 miles, much of it up and down hills. Even the much-younger (than me) teachers were feeling the strain by the time we returned.

For yet another time, my understanding of what would be happening wasn’t quite accurate. Our destination turned out to be a very large stone obelisk at the top of a large hill, which is a memorial to the people who died during the long civil war that preceded the formation of the People’s Republic of China. A large red star tops the obelisk and the students stood in front of it while one of them placed a large wreath at its base. Another led the group in reciting what must have been a patriotic oath. Like kids everywhere who are required to attend such ceremonies, most probably didn’t really grasp the solemnity of the event, and they were a bit restless. But the teachers and the other adults who were there did understand and so did I. Despite what philosophical or political differences I might have with the regime that created this memorial, I knew that the people who die in wars are basically the same, everywhere. They are young, idealistic, brave people whose honor, bravery, or just ill fortune leads them to die for their country. Many of my peers never returned from the Vietnam War. Most of us who served there were guided less by political ideology than by simple love of country. Adding to the poignancy for me was the knowledge that many young Chinese soldiers from this area also died in Vietnam. Such a tragedy. These thoughts, and the knowledge that I am the constant target of the students’ curiosity and attention, led me to maintain a solemn visage and I carefully avoided eye contact to lessen the likelihood of an excited “Hi, John!” greeting from one of the kids.

Saturday, April 3rd: Saturday morning, my advisor Mr. Zhang, picked me up around 9am for a day in the countryside. I really didn’t especially want to go. I still haven’t had as much “me” time as I would like. But they are insistent on taking care of me during my stay. Their intentions are always good and I often have a good time anyway. Mr. Zhang doesn’t drive (he is currently taking driving lessons) so he waved to me from the rear seat of a small car that pulled up in front of my hotel. The driver was a friend of his who would take us to his in-law’s town of Shi Ma. Jammed in the backseat with Mr. Zhang were his wife, 10-year-old daughter, and the driver’s very cute 3-year-old daughter. As we drove through the crowded, chaotic streets of Mianyang, the size of the buildings gradually got smaller. We finally took a smaller road that wound up a hillside. We honked the horn continuously to warn anyone who might be walking, riding, or driving just around the next bend. This is the norm for driving in China – people honk their horns all the time. And, unlike at home, the recipients of the loud warning take no offense but just leisurely move out of the way.

We arrived in Shi Ma and met Mr. Zhang’s wife’s mother and three brothers (a pre-one-child-policy family) and their wives. They were very polite and seemed happy to meet me, especially whenever I tried to speak to them in Mandarin. Mr. Zhang and I went for a walk around town while the others did something else. Interestingly, although people here were friendly to me, they were just slightly more guarded than the people in Mianyang. In Mianyang, people don’t see foreigners very often but they know there are a few around, working at the universities. When they see me, they typically react as if they have spotted a movie star – young girls seem excitedly embarrassed, boys smile, and parents all want their children to say “hello” to the foreigner. In Shi Ma, on the other hand, they probably never see foreigners, and this is probably why they seem tentative in how they should receive me. As Mr.Zhang and I strolled around the town, which is quite depressed economically compared to Mianyang, a car with tinted windows pulled slowly up beside us. As the window was lowered, a policeman looked me over, obviously quite suspicious of what I was doing in Shi Ma. The camera hanging around my neck probably made him think I might be a journalist. Sometimes, journalists write less-than-flattering stories about China, getting the locals into trouble. He and Mr. Zhang had a brief conversation, undoubtedly to explain why I was there, and the policeman seemed relieved to hear whatever it was that Mr. Zhang said. He smiled genuinely and waved to me as he drove off. I didn’t really ask Mr. Zhang about the details of what was said – Mr. Zhang’s English is pretty limited and I knew it would be hard to understand him anyway.

We had a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant where a lone table was set up outside for the nine of us. As we ate, we talked and everyone grew more comfortable. We chatted amiably and they seemed to grow to like me more – not even seeming to mind when I refused to drink alcohol and when they learned I had been a soldier in the US army during the Vietnam War. At the table, Mr. Zhang’s 10-year old daughter asked me if I might give her an English name. I first suggested Grace (I’ve already given this name to one 7th-grader who requested a name) but she didn’t like that – she also rejected the names of my mother (Jean) and three sisters (Janet, Judy, Mona.) She finally accepted the simple name Mary. When we left Shi Ma, Mr. Zhang’s brothers-in-law seemed very fond of me (probably more to do with their noon-time alcohol than my charm) and I got a warm hug from one of them.

Video: Lunch at Shi Ma

We took a taxi from Shi Ma to a larger town called Jiang You (it means “River Oil”, not an especially good name for attracting investors, I think.) Here, we strolled through a very nice riverside area called Tai Bai Park, named after another beloved ancient poet. It was one of the nicest places I’ve seen in Sichuan thus far, with lots of flowers and attractive gardens. People were strolling, fishing, playing Mahjong, and taking their kids on the small amusement rides there. We spent about an hour there and I enjoyed it.

Video: Strolling Through Tai Bai Park after Lunch

We then took two pedicabs from Tai Bai to the Jiang You bus station. There, we boarded a very uncomfortable, rattling bus for a 45-minute trip back to Mianyang. I was happy to learn that we arrived at PingZheng Station, which is where I need to go to catch the bus to JiuZhaiGou (National Park) when I leave here on April 17th. Now I feel confident I know where to buy the ticket and how to get there. I just hope the bus to JiuZhaiGou (~10 hour trip) is nicer than the bus we took back to Mianyang.

Sunday, April 4th: On Sunday morning, my teacher friend Kerry picked me up in front of the hotel to take me to meet another teacher, Mr. Lee, who so kindly volunteered to teach me Chinese Chess (after I had told the headmaster I was interested in learning and he announced that fact when I was introduced for my speech.) We met at a very attractive teahouse, where people go to drink tea while they play cards, chess, or mahjong. There are many, many such teahouses here. I’ve been told that many Sichuanese people love to gamble and are especially hooked on Mahjong. I don’t think Mr. Lee falls into that category – he seems to be a nice young teacher who is just interested in meeting and helping me. He speaks no English so that’s why Kerry came along. I had absolutely no knowledge of Chinese chess but had often stopped to watch the older men playing on worn, beat-up chessboards on street corners. Actually, the weather-worn boards and chess pieces I had seen on the street had given me an erroneous perception about the game. The chess pieces all looked the same to me because the Chinese characters painted on them had almost disappeared. I didn’t realize that there are many different kinds of pieces and that the game is just as complicated (and somewhat similar to) the western game of chess. I was hoping it was more like “checkers” which is much easier to learn. I played chess briefly about 40 years ago and vaguely remembered some of the basic rules and none of the strategy. As Mr. Lee patiently explained the game to me, and Kerry translated, I tried hard to concentrate and learn as much as I could. After all, I had asked for lessons and this nice man was giving up a Sunday morning to help me. But my heart wasn’t really in it. It was hard enough to try to keep track of the names and rules of movement for each piece and impossible to understand the suggestions Mr. Lee was giving me about strategy. When it was my turn to move, and I looked at the board without a hint of what I should do, I was reminded of the funny simile I heard years ago… I felt …” like a hog looking at a stopwatch.”

After two games of chess (the second game, Kerry played against Mr. Lee and I tried to learn while watching), we said goodbye to Mr. Lee and headed back to the hotel. Kerry told me her mother was staying with her and invited me to have lunch at her apartment. I agreed and we climbed to the sixth floor apartment near the school. Her mother was very nice and had prepared a very delicious lunch, the best food I’ve had since I’ve been here, and the food has been very good. I was able to communicate with her mother a little in Chinese and that was fun. They invited me to stay and chat or watch TV after lunch but I declined because I wanted to rest a while and I thought I had already taken up enough of Kerry’s weekend. When I said goodbye and “… see you tomorrow,” Kerry informed me that I should say see you Tuesday, because Monday was a holiday. Want to guess what holiday it was? Yep… “tomb-sweeping day for respecting the ancestors.” Mr. Zhang had told me about this upcoming holiday – he just didn’t make it clear when it would happen :-).

At 4pm on Sunday afternoon, I met the young college students who had taken me to lunch the previous week. They had been very kind to me and I wanted to take them to dinner. I met Raulson and Marina and Errol (a girl) in front of the McDonalds near the center of town and we a took bus to their college, Mianyang Normal College, located in the hills just outside of town. We enjoyed a nice long walk around the campus, where students were enjoying a long weekend by playing basketball, riding bicycles or other leisurely activities. The campus is quite nice with many big trees. I also liked how quiet it was, a commodity in short supply in much of modern China. One interesting thing I learned was that, after the earthquake, everyone had moved out of their dorms to live in temporary housing set up in adjacent lots (see photos of low blue-and-white buildings.) Most of the college’s buildings were not severely damaged but the shaking had been quite violent and fairly severe after-shocks occurred for weeks afterward. It was necessary for engineers to inspect all these large building before allowing people to live in them again. (This happened at my Middle School too. All the students who live at the school were sent home for several weeks/months and all the teachers had to move into temporary huts on the playground where I gave my speech.) After quite a long walk, we selected a restaurant and were met there by yet another young college student, named Legend. All of these students are English majors and they want very much to speak with a native English speaker, which partly explains their kindness to me. But they also are genuinely nice people and I feel lucky to have met them. Marina even gave me a nice gift of some Chinese handicraft. She also told me that Legend, who is a very attractive young lady who showed up at dinner wearing a red jacket and leather hot-pants, had hoped she could go with me to JiuZhaiGou as my guide. She had decided against it when she discovered the cost (very expensive park entrance fee). I told her that I appreciated that she had entertained this notion but I was really happy to go there alone. On my own, I would be more challenged to speak Mandarin to other people. I also told her that my wife probably wouldn’t understand when I showed her the photos of me and the sexy 21-year old Chinese girl at JiuZhaiGou park. After dinner (which cost 46RMB – about $8 for 5 people,) they all escorted me back to my hotel on the bus, where we said a genuinely touching goodbye, with all hoping that we might get one more chance to see each other before I leave Mianyang.

Monday, April 5: This is the unexpected holiday that I only learned about on Saturday, and I relished the opportunity to do whatever I wanted…. all day long! In the morning I took the bus to Peoples Park where I watched hundreds of people dancing to several different kinds of music. I’m told this dancing occurs every morning and evening, but I would presume there are more people on weekends and holidays. If time allows, I may get up the courage to try and join them next time. I hadn’t been there long when my phone rang. It was Mr. Wang, the “lead teacher” for grade 7, and he asked me where I was. I told him and he said he wanted to pick me up to take me “…to the countryside” where we could enjoy a lunch. I felt a little annoyed and told him that, if he didn’t mind too much, that I would prefer to be alone today and just rest. He didn’t seem to hear that and said he would pick me up a little after 11am. I had a vague feeling that Mr. Zhang had told me on Sunday that this would happen, but I had forgotten about it so I didn’t feel like I could be too insistent about refusing to go. So, I headed back to my hotel and awaited his arrival.

Mr. Wang doesn’t drive either. He says he doesn’t really have time to take driving lessons, which are required to get a license. (I have ridden in the cars of several teachers since I’ve been here and most of them are obviously new drivers, taking a long time to maneuver their cars into parking areas – owning and driving a car is a recent phenomenon for teachers.) Mr. Wang pulled up in a nice Nissan car driven by his wife. He introduced us briefly and then she drove away. Mr. Wang explained that another car was coming for us. Just a few minutes later another car pulled up and we got into the back seat. It was several minutes before I realized it wasn’t a taxi and the driver was a friend of Mr. Wang’s. This car was owned and driven by Mr. Lee, a college professor who is about 50 years old. I wasn’t especially talkative since I really wanted to be somewhere else. I hoped we could have the lunch and I’d still have some of the day left for doing whatever I might want to do on my own.

It took about 45 minutes to get to the restaurant, which was just outside of town. During the drive, I chatted with Mr. Wang in English and tried to communicate a little with Mr. Lee using Mandarin. He seemed to be impressed that I could speak any Mandarin and I think this raised his opinion of me. Throughout the day, we became friends and he seemed to enjoy talking to me and having photos taken with me. At the restaurant, we entered a private room with a large table where several cold dishes were already present. Arriving in short order were Mr. Wang’s wife and daughter and three other families with children about the daughter’s age. Basically, these were friends of Mr. Wang’s who had middle-school children. They were very nice families and it slowly became apparent that the parents were keenly interested in having their children talk with the foreign teacher. During the meal, they each coerced the kids into coming over to me, making a toast and having a short conversation in English. The kids were not crazy about the idea, mostly because they were intimidated by speaking to a foreigner. Like the students in my classes, they think their English is too poor to be able to talk with me. But their parents (who spoke no English) were excited to have their children speak to me and even more delighted when I told them that their child’s English was very good. I got the impression that getting to know me is considered to be good “guanxi” for a Chinese English student. I’ve been here almost three weeks now and I’m still amazed at the high status with which people regard me, simply because I can speak English. As at all banquets, there is a custom of people making toasts to each other – most men make a toast to every other individual (or family) at the table in sequence. I know this is Chinese etiquette and, even though I would prefer to just enjoy the meal, it is better if I make an effort to make a toast. At this meal, I made a single toast to the entire table, consisting of four or five sentences of Mandarin. I’m sure my pronunciations were poor and grammar horrific but I think they got the gist and were very pleased with my attempt.

After lunch, all but two of the families accompanied me to visit a large Buddhist temple near the restaurant. The temple is called Shen Shui Si (Mysterious Water Temple) and it sits on the side of a very large hill. It’s comprised of many large buildings and has at least two temples that house large Buddha statues. You will notice in the photos that there is also a huge, white, reclining Buddha in the distance. We climbed about 1000 steps (see photos) to get to the starting point and we were all winded. I think the middle school parents weren’t sure it was worth THIS much trouble to meet the foreigner :-).  But it was very pleasant walking around the temple grounds and visiting the two main buildings. In accordance with local protocol, I made a small contribution, signed my Chinese name to the visitor’s log, and asked for the Buddha’s blessing by bowing three times while kneeling down on one of the cushions on the floor at the base of the statues.

I came home about 4pm and was really beat so I fell asleep on the bed. When I awakened, it was 6pm and I had a sudden urge for peanut butter! I knew the only place that might have it would be the large Wal-Mart on the other side of town, so I caught the bus and headed there. I didn’t find peanut butter, but I did buy peanut butter crackers, potato chips, chocolate bars, some cookies, and a quart of real cow’s milk. Man, did I have a junk food feast that night!

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