Sunday, February 28, 2010

People Watching

Sometimes I know I should do things, but against my better judgment I don't. I think it comes down to a lack of foresight, which is surprising considering what a responsible and thorough planner I usually am.

Today I attended a talk given by the Dalai Lama, which was naturally given in his native tongue, Tibetan. Everything I read about attending event suggested I bring a radio and earphones since an English translation of the talk was transmitted via radio. I failed to pick one up, thinking there would be some available at the temple where the talk was held. I was mistaken.

My first year in China involved countless dinners and events that required listening without the slightest comprehension of what was going on around me or even directed at me. I was the champ of smiling politely and looking like an idiot. Can anything be gained by this? What is the point of listening without understanding the words being spoken?

I think it teaches me a lot about the people around me. Much can be missed when focusing primarily on spoken language. Body language, behavior, personal hygiene, and fashion sense are aspects of an individual I may overlook when fully engaged in a conversation or speech. There is certainly something to be learned by watching people.

The audience at the talk was mostly monks, with a mix of ordinary Tibetans, Indians, and a sprinkling of foreigners. The monks sitting in front of me were a mix--to the left, a group of young boys not more than 11-years-old. To the right was what appeared to be a group of nuns--it's hard to tell with their layered robes and shaved heads. The boys were chatting amongst each other, even giggling, and occasionally popping crackers into their mouthes. The nuns listened attentively, their eyes on His Holiness, who was seated at the front high upon a stack of cushions.

A laugh rippled through the crowd. Few things in life are more awkward than being the only one in the room who doesn't get a joke--it's just as uncomfortable when that joke is coming from the Dalai Lama. Despite my discomfort, my inability to understand even one word of Tibetan, I kept my ears and (mostly) my eyes open. It was great to be a part of something, to witness something that is so culturally and spiritually significant to Tibetans. To watch them and be with them was intriguing and I hope to get to know them and their struggle at least a little better.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Somehow it is already my forth day in India. Our first day was spent in Delhi, India's bustling capital, which was somehow tamer than I expected. Don't be mislead, it is still very chaotic, noisy, and crowded, but I was pleasantly surprised at the ease and comfort I felt there. We stayed at a lovely hostel (Nirvana) in a residential area in south Delhi. We were able to roam the streets unharassed by touts or beggars, but instead got to catch a glimpse into ordinarly Indian life in all of its cow loving, horn honking glory.

Currently, Amy and I are staying northern India in a small village called Naddi, which is a few miles northwest of McLeod Ganj, the seat of the Dalai Lama's government in exile. Today we waited on the road side leading into town to greet His Holiness; the Dalai Lama was returning "home" from the airport. As the anticipation of his arrival built, Tibetan children dressed in school uniform aligned themselves down the road with arms outstretched. Laying over their arms where long, white prayer scarves. They waited patiently while Amy and I tried to kill time laughing at nearby men trying to fix an auto rickshaw which was precariously perched on an angle off the side of a cliff.

At last the motorcade arrived and I looked curiously inside the passing vehicles. There he was, seated in the backseat of the second vehicle, waving to us as he passed by. It was a blink-and-you'll-miss it kind of moment (which Amy unfortunately did), but I couldn't help but feel overcome by happiness just to have seen his kind, elderly face.

After he passed, we followed the vehicles up the road and made our way to McLeod Ganj. Next we visited the town's temple, which echoed with the sound of mysterious Tibetan chants. Hundreds of maroon-robed monks and nuns were seated inside, surrounding a small group that was chanting into a microphone on stage. The atmosphere was powerful, but eery though it was nothing compared to the haunting Tibetan museum found on the temple grounds. The pictures and stories portrayed there were chilling, to say the least. The two hour documentary we watched on Tibet and the Chinese occupation of it was heart wrenching.

But these are all thoughts and experiences I will mostly keep to myself when I return to China. I must leave them behind, along with the 'Free Tibet' tote bags and t-shirts, Dalai Lama postcards, and Tibetan flags. I guess this is the issue I'm struggling most with today--that in addition to the injustices committed against these and other people is the added injustice of silence.

Friday, February 12, 2010

My Five Year Anniversary with the PRC

As I approach my fifth year, I thought I'd post some journal entries from my first week.

From Thursday, February 24, 2005

I am here! I can hardly believe it. It's rather surreal. Everything went very well, despite the fact that no one seems to know English. Once I got to the hotel, my roommate, Krissy, was here. She's from L.A. and she arrived yesterday. It's just the two of us right now, as we both arrive early. We went out to explore a little tonight. I almost got ran over by either a bike or a car every time I attempted to cross a street. It's very surprising to find how few Westerners are here. We saw one foreigner the whole night. We went to a restaurant and the whole process took about 2 hours (and only cost $3.50 each). We had tea, beer, sweet and sour pork, beef with peppers, and rice. It was actually fairly similar to the Chinese food in America, only the rice came after the meal.

Friday, February 25, 2005 (Day Two in Shanghai)

It's amazing how well things are going. I have yet to feel stressed out or uncomfortable. This morning Krissy and I went to Huai Hai Road. First we indulged in a little comfort and had Starbucks. In there, it hardly felt like being away from home.

Afterwards we walked down to the park and were bombarded with aggressive Chinese with fliers that showed their various designer watches, shoes, and purses. I have never said 'no' so many times in my life! And they think we must like it when they say, "Hello! Hello!" but to me it just sounds condescending. The park we walked through was small but beautiful--I'm sure it's even better in the summer. There were people doing Tai Chi, which was neat. No one in the States would have the patience or the courage to do that in public. After that we strolled through the market. That was rather intense. We haggled for Burberry gloves and scarves. I bought two scarves for about $15 each--not too bad. But who knows if they're real??

Lunch was interesting--we ordered salty duck and bamboo soup and spicy beef. The beef was good, but it came in a pot of spicy oil. I hope I don't gain more weight here. I thought the food would be healthier and the portion size much smaller.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Orientation began today and it's weird not having the freedom we had last week. We started the morning with breakfast, which was a bit horrific. Beverages included: the worst milk I've ever tasted, hot Tang orange drink, tea that tasted like piss, and curiously colored coffee. I am beginning to miss American food and beverage.

After breakfast we had a quick Chinese lesson and then on then on to hear two speakers. We just got back from our day trip to Old Shanghai. That was terrific--I wish we could have spent more time there. It was filled with pagodas and lanterns (for the Chinese New Year). We went to a temple, City Hall of Shanghai. Inside were various statues. I found one for my birth year 1982 (一九八二), year of the dog (狗). It was interesting to see how serious the Chinese take these statues, praying and bowing before them. We also went to Yuyuan Garden, which was like a dream--exactly what I picture when I think of China or Japan--pagodas with lanterns surrounded by water filled with large goldfish, beautiful trees and shrubbery. . . walkways over the water. There was a 400-year-old Ginko Biloba tree. . . ornate carvings and creative doorways. But I must be on my way to dinner, more meat--Peking duck. . . great!

Footnote: I totally overpaid for those fake Burberry scarves!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teaching Tigers to Monkeys

Wednesday morning, 8:30am, I found myself in front of a group of enthusiastic kindergarteners. I, somewhat apprehensively, had agreed to be the 'Special Guest' speaker for my sister's (aka Mrs. Malsom) K5 class. I was there to teach the children about an upcoming holiday. No, not Valentine's Day, nor Mardi Gras, or even President's Day. I was there to talk about Chinese New Year. This year February 14th will mark the New Year, the Year of the Tiger. But how does one describe this foreign event to 6-year-olds? I started by asking them what they knew about China.

"They have Chinese food. It's good!"

"I have a movie about pandas!"

Pandas and Chinese food, this was probably about all I knew myself when I first set foot in China nearly five years ago at the tender age of 22. I'm now armed with plenty of knowledge, but I had to break it down in a way understandable to their young and anxious minds. To ease the process, we started with a pop-up book that described the Chinese New Year.

The book illustrated what everyday Chinese do in preparation for and during the Chinese New Year. First, they clean their homes, as it symbolizing the sweeping away of bad luck from the previous year. Next, they will decorate their homes and even dress in the color red. Red is an auspicious color, believed to scare away evil spirits. On New Year's Eve, a feast is prepared and it includes fish and (in northern China) dumplings. Dumplings (i.e. potstickers) are shaped like money and therefore symbolize wealth.

On New Year's Day children are given small red envolopes that contain money. According to tradition, an even amount of money is considered best. In Mandarin, eight is pronunced 'ba' which is a homophone for wealth. Similarly, six is pronounced 'liu,' a homophone for 'smooth.' For this reason amounts containing the numbers 8 or 6 are sometimes common. Fireworks and fire crackers are also popular, both on New Year's Eve and during the first two weeks of the New Year. As with the color red, fireworks and crackers are thought to scare away evil spirits.

The students all seemed fairly mesmerized by these Chinese traditions. In one picture, a family sat around a table, ready to begin their holiday meal. In the middle of the table lay a (whole) fish, cooked and ready to be ate. I explained that fish is eaten whole in China--head, skin, eyes, and all, everything but the bones. There were plenty of groans and "ewwwwwwwwwww's." The perfect opportunity for a lesson on tolerance.

"Different people eat different things. We may think it's strange, but they may also think our food is strange too. And that's okay, but we need to be willing to try and understand new things," taught Mrs. Malsom.

After finishing the story, I held out a globe for the class to see. I started with a warmer-up question, "What is this called?"

"A globe!"

"The Earth!"

"Very good," I praised, "This is a globe and it is the earth." I then pointed to the U.S. "Do you know what country this is?"

"China!" three students exclaimed in unison. "Good guess," I encouraged and then asked, "What country do you live in?"

"Milwaukee!!" one student yelled. "Wisconsin!!" another one cried.

"No, Milwaukee is the city. Wisconsin is the state. Can anybody tell me what country we live in?" I asked again nervously. One of them had to know and I wasn't going to give up on them too easily. There was five seconds of rather uncomfortable silence.

"America!" a boy in the back finally proclaimed.

"Yes," I said with relief. I keep my finger pointed to the U.S., rested the globe on my lap, and used my other hand to point at China. "This is China. How do you think I got from China to our country, America?"

"An airplane!" several children cried. They got it! These were no dummies.

Now for the conclusion of their lesson. "What year were you born?"

"In December," one boy answered with enthusiasm. "September 9th," another exclaimed.

Ok, I was going to have to try this another way. "How old are you?" I asked.

"Five-and-a-half!!" "I'm six." "My birthday's next week!"

"Okay, so many of you are monkeys," I tried to explain, leading into my discussion of the Chinese zodiac and Year of the Tiger. This could be tricky. "Every year in China has a different animal. Your year is the monkey. This year is the tiger so today we are going to make tigers."

The children looked on in excitement. Mrs. Malsom taught them how to assemble their orange construction paper tigers with pipe cleaner tails. Everything had fallen together with such ease. It's amazing how much simpler instruction is when students speak the same language as their teacher, even if they don't know what country they live in or what year they were born.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Finding the Best of Milwaukee

My personal experiment has wound down. Truthfully, I haven't been that diligent with it recently, as I discovered I am naturally inclined to being somewhat adventurous. This is probably pretty obvious to people who know me. I like to explore new places and I'm willing to order anything off the menu. I am, however, trying to be me consciencious when it comes to compulsively accomplish tasks that don't need to be done (i.e. visiting the post office twice a day).

I am also trying to do things I often consider doing, but never quite get around to. I think many people, myself included, like the idea of something and imagine ourselves one day doing it, yet we never quite get around to it. I also think we so often take for granted the sites and quirks of the cities in which we live and I would like to take full advantage of what Milwaukee has to offer--which includes more than one may realize. Therefore, still on my 'to do' list, with less than a week left in Wisconsin, is to visit the Tripoli Shrine ( It's a building I've often heard mentioned, but only recently discovered to be a mini replica of the Taj Mahal. Perhaps a trip to the Harley Davidson Museum ( or Sprecher Brewer Tour ( is in store. Provided the weather clears up, as it hindered my visit today, a trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls ( exhibit is in order.

I have already managed to experience a few of Milwaukee's tourist gems. I took a tour of the city's very own distillery (, which is tiny enough that you can sit at the distillery's bar slamming vodka cranberries while overhearing the tour guide (free tour, samples $4). I can't remember much, but I did learn that juniper is what gives gin its destinctively pine taste. Slightly educational, very smooth vodka--I recommend it.

I have also been lucky enough to be introduced to time travel. Please visit Milwaukee's At Random specialty cocktail lounge (2501 S Deleware Street, Bayview) and you will have the pleasure of being transported back in time or perhaps even to another dimension. Though it's hard to see in such dim lighting, the walls are wooden panelled and strung with Christmas lights; creepy owls knick knacks lurk in the corner. The booths are duct-taped and jazz music fills the air. The waitress/owner is pushing 90, using lingo so outmoded communication becomes a struggle. Every seat is taken and the clientele is varied, from older couples to young Latino gangsters. The specialty drinks are pricey ($6-18) but filling and delicious. A great place to venture for a drink after dinner, but be warned, this place fills up fast, hours are scanty, and service is slooooow.

Monday, February 08, 2010

An Answer to That Question: Part Two

I actually documented Ming and my first date. I want to put this on blogger, as it's hard to know where my journals may end up since they'll be left in my Grandma's basement for the time being. You are welcome to read this, embarassing as it may be.

From Wednesday, June 1, 2005

If mininshed yesterday morning's lesson and guess who was standing outside the door? Tao Ming. He managed to get in the school. I'm not sure how because usually the gate keeper only lets teachers and students in the building. He took me to lunch in a little restaurant by the old outdoor market. He asked me what I wanted, "Chick?" I said chicken was fine. Rice and chicken, afterall, sounds safe enough, but in China you never know what you're going to get.

It ended up being every part of the chicken, cut up and cooked in a sauce. I tried picking through it to find the meaty parts (I have a slight aversion to skin and fat, veins and feet. Such things don't seem to bother the Chinese). He scolded me for using my hands--a big no-no here. So he picked through the chicken with his chopsticks, finding the meat for me. He told me he would not be at the gym that night because he had to work (he is a train conductor). I went off to school for my afternoon lessons, disappointed I wouldn't be seeing him again in the evening.

Shortly after I returned home for the night, there was a knock at the door. . . he took off work to spend the evening with me. He took me to KFC for more chicken. This may sound like a pitiful first date, but KFC is fairly high class dining in Chengde. Then we went to a movie; unfortunately it was in Chinese. Ming went to talk to the manager and the movie was changed. It was also Chinese, "God of Gamblers," but it had English subtitles. I found it to be a typical Chinese film, somewhat crappy, but funny at parts and violent at others. The theater was much different from an American theater. We had our own little cubicle to sit in, very personal! After the movie we walked home and he came up for a little bit.

Today he stopped by after lunch and brought me a bag of apples. He walked Nancy and I to the bus. I'm not used to all this attention! Now I am in Beijing. Nancy went off to Qingdao tonight and I am leaving for Guilin tomorrow.

Footnote: I know longer mind eating fat, skin, and veins, but I draw the line at feet (and brains).

Ming was never a train conductor. That was one of many initial misunderstandings.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An Answer to That Question

How did you meet?

It's all documented here. . . .

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
On Sunday night that guy at the gym (who always attempts to talk to me in English) asked me to wait for him. Of course I didn't because I had to go home and take a shower. Plus, what would we do if we couldn't talk to each other? But again tonight he pursued. It is actually quite sweet because he gives English his best shot! He told me that I am 'a woman good' and that he likes me. Maybe I'll take him out for a beer with the other foreign teachers sometime. We'll see.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005
The last couple days have been amazing. On Monday night my 'friend' was at the gym and friendly as ever. When I finished working out I hung around talking to him and the sweet girl who works there (not sure of her name, but she can speak some English!). My friend went downstairs to shower and I waited around for Nancy to finish. Coincidentally, we all ended up leaving the gym at the same time. He--Tao Ming (I now know his name!) offered to give me a ride home on his bike. No, not bike as in moped or motorcycle, but bike as in bicycle. Oh shit, I thought. . . I'm going to hang off the back of this thing like all the Chinese girls do.

But, luckily, we just walked. He stopped and bought me a yogurt drink (very popular in China). When we got to my apartment I ran upstairs and grapped my Lonely Planet phrasebook to help along our conversating. We talked for over an hour. He can read English and is picking it up rather quickly. He asked me about my family and told me about his family and told me he was happy because he was with me. Aww! Oh, and on the walk home we saw some foreigners--which I called "Laowai" (which means 'foreigner' but maybe is a little derogatory) and he laughed like crazy. He corrected me, evidently "Waiguoren" is a more politically correct term.

Anyways, as we were standing outside, about to say good-bye, it began to rain. So we stood under the doorway of my apartment and he gave me a kiss.


Footnote: That friend, who later became my husband, is (as you probably know) Zhao Ming and not Tao Ming as earlier referred to.