09 July 2011

Day 5 = Laundry & Tiring of the Squatty-Potties

Ah, yes...it is at this point in the journey where the culture shock begins to make its presence known as the smog of all things unique, interesting, and exciting dissipates to reveal reality. Meal times are definitely a ritual in Chinese daily life, but eating has become exhausting. Would you consider encountering a Thanksgiving-style spread for each meal over the course of a week? Granted, I'm sure there are people out there who are willing to partake in Italian night at the 'Old Country Buffet' or 'Souplantation' every day for the remainder of their natural lives, but I have begun to miss the conveniences of preparing my own food and eating in a time frame less than 1.5 to 2 hours. The dishes are numerous, and the options endless as you spin the lazy-susan-wheel-of-food-fortune to find a chopstick-full of whatever delight has been presented. The pace is slow, and it is difficult to ascertain the portion size of each meal when you are placing 2-3 bites of food on your dish at a time, and the wheel just keeps on spinning, with dishes being added over the course of the one to two hours that are allotted for the meal. Last night, I took a break from this cacophony of culinary creations and just had a bite of bok choy, two pieces of spicy tofu...and millet wine, called Baiju (白酒bái jiǔ). However, this does not imply a lack of appreciation or enjoyment of the local food. We've encountered several regional cuisines, since Beijing is such an epicenter for various Chinese emigrants and immigrants from Southeast Asia. Korean BBQ was on today's agenda, with four of us at the vegetarian table. We broiled enoki mushrooms, sweet potatoes, daikon, potatoes, tofu and lotus root on a hot plate in the center of our table, cleansing our palates with lettuce leaves that arrived at our table in a basket.
This morning, I dug into the depths of my backpack for the pouch (I should write another entry just on how I have purposed many a pouch for this journey) containing my flax-seed oatmeal and yerba mate tea bags. I savored this ideal little breakfast with a spoon. It's the little, familiar items and moments that can make such a difference in keeping spirits positive and tummies in cooperative.
Speaking of familiarity, I made a selfish pact with myself that I could 'hold it' if I really needed to 'go' while on our visit to the Temple of Heaven this afternoon. This, of course, was warranted since I had courageously ventured into squatty-potty (i.e. 'hole in the floor for your business') land with the confidence of Bear Grylls, earlier this week. Why not? Full disclosure permitting, as a hiker/camper/backpacker/traveler for many years, I have made anywhere from the back-woods of the Mackinaw river to the peccary dens of the Amazon my potty. Ah, yes...to be one with nature, when nature calls. A hole in the floor? Surely this is a luxury compared to a dusty rock off a narrow path in the Andes or a port-a-potty at the starting line for a half-marathon in August! The first time, as most first encounters tend to be, was a novelty. "Would you look at that, Angela! There's even a pedal to flush and two impressions of feet, with anti-skid tape, marked so that you can be perfectly aligned. This is even better than you imagined. How difficult can this be?" At this moment, I realized that a skirt may have been a better choice, so I held it just in case...well, you get the idea. There are a few 'hazards' involved with said potties, and it certainly takes a few tries to get the hang of it. Each attempt has the potential for consequences that could not easily be hidden from the group, so I've just strategized my timing of water/tea intake and bathroom availability. I think this is perhaps one of the ways that traveling with a group has allowed me to be a bit less daring with even minor encounters such as these. This is almost like being potty-trained all over again. At this moment, I am empathizing with all of the toddlers waddling around in their plastic-creaking Pull-Ups, wondering the best way to mount/dismount the towering porcelain chair and hear the monumental drips that indicate that they have successfully completed this new right of passage that enables them to function along with the masses.
Finally, laundry! Here is a brief introduction to hand-washing your packed wardrobe:
Materials required:
1) Bag: I like to reuse a plastic bag (i.e. 'GAP') that can be disposed of at the end of the journey. This bag serves the purpose of the large, roomy hamper you may have in your home. This, however, tends to gather all of your garments in a multi-colored, fragrant wad until you are nearly out of underwear and rapidly approaching the 'it had better dry before the flight!' deadline. The timing of removing the items from the bag may also relate to the 'ripeness' of said clothing, and whether or not you catch a lil' whiff as you open the drawstrings to drop in the day's soiled socks.
2) Liquid Detergent - travel-sized: Woe to those who choose the powdered variety, as it just adds to the 'itch and crunch' factor which I will touch on later.
3) Water - preferably clean, although definitively not at the end of your first scrub.
4) Sink/Bucket
5) Clothesline/hangers/chairs - for draping
1) Plug the sink, and squeeze the liquid detergent into the sink.
2) Fill the sink with water, using your hands to swish the blue goo around as if you were the paddles of your Whirpool machine, enjoying its deserved vacation back at home.
3) Suds now arising, pat your hands on a little towel and gracefully open the drawstring of your hamper bag.
4) Whoops, forgot to mention that you should have plugged your nose prior to step three. No matter, you may now fish each item from the bag and place it in the soapy water, reminiscing of bygone days when this was the norm...or when you should have hand-washed that cardigan instead of shrugging your shoulders and dumping it in with the jeans because you couldn't have been bothered.
5) Agitate said garments a bit, your eyebrows raise as the water turns a delicate shade of puce - from the perspiration or smog, you're unsure, but you increase the pace of said agitation in order to remove all particles from your old t-shirts and undergarments.
6) Empty the sink, repeat processes above.
7) Wring out each item, placing them haphazardly on the plastic bag, and re-fill the sink with clean water for a rinse.
8) Channel the functionality of the washer, and create your own rinse cycle with appropriate amount of humming (if desired).
9) Drain the sink once more, and wring out each garment, placing them on the clothesline your hotel had the foresight to provide since you did not remember to bring yours from home.
10) Curse a bit under your breath when your unmentionables take up the entire clothesline, and four shirts still stare at you in their pile of sorrow from the sink, wondering how you will find a way to hang them up efficiently with only two hangers available.
11) Drape a shirt over the shower rod, then hear your mother's voice in your head, "Oh, Angela! Didn't you check first to see if it was dusty?" Check. It's indeed dusty.
12) Swear a bit under your breath, return said shirt to sink for a re-rinse.
13) Dust the rod, then drape three shirts over it and hang up the other two.
14) Tidy the bathroom so your roommate will be none the wiser.
15) Take the empty bag back into the main room, and spy your jacket on the bed. This is the same jacket that you had spilled a bowl of stinky tofu and noodles on two nights prior to this one, at the street market. Same jacket that was left for hotel staff to launder as it would take additional time to dry.
16) Curse a bit more under your breath. Shrug your shoulders, put it into the hamper bag, and vow to greet the front desk staff with its stinky splendour in the morning. Meanwhile, consider how to properly pronounce in Mandarin, "This stinks to high heaven, because I'm a clumsy tourist; please wash it for room 556 before Monday. Thanks!"
17) Repeat until you are willing to a) pay for your items to be laundered or b) dispose of items to make way for souvenirs and reduce future laundry episodes.DSCN2145

06 July 2011

Scorpions on a stick, anyone?

Today was an excellent day for acclimation and processing, as we review the objectives of the program: to devise curriculum to emphasize/explore/identify means of teaching about contemporary issues in Chinese/Taiwanese culture/historical significance in our classrooms back in the U.S.A. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? That's a pretty tall order, but fascinating and already providing endless discussions and opportunities for further inquiry within our group. We are analyzing each of our site visits against the China Institute's five areas of significance: History, Material Culture, Appreciation, People and Culture, and Geography. There have been several encounters that have sparked my interest for lessons to add to the curriculum guide - for the elementary/intermediate level. The majority of my collegues instruct at the middle or high school levels so my learning curve is Everest in scale, in regard to prior/background knowledge and lessons to engage higher level/critical thinking. I've started reading the Chinese epic, 'Monkey', which has striking parallels to Hanuman from 'The Ramayana.' It is this preservation of the traditional literary and artistic forms to tell the current Chinese story that have caught my interest. How to use rod/shadow puppetry (as observed at the Laoshe Teahouse on Monday night) to give voice to the importance of water as a sustaining source for energy and survival in rural areas? Is there a way to use the art of paper cutting to speak to consumerism, or explore Taoism in current art as well as that of the past? Yesterday, I found this outstanding painting (see in attached album) at the Chinese National Museum that was presented in the style of Song Dynasty guó huà (国画), rather impressionistic in a sense. However, this contemporary take on guó huà was disharmonius in its tone - the presence of cranes and power lines were quite dissonant against the serene landscape. This would be an excellent starting point for so many lessons with students of various levels...my mind is spinning with the possibilities. Especially since we will be visiting 798 Art Zone as part of tomorrow's plan.

We have been sharing articles, books, primary sources and artifacts with one another as we encounter many issues. As Carmen (my colleague from Queens, NY) said today, "If you keep sweeping issues under the carpet, you'll eventually have a lumpy carpet." It is still difficult to conceptualize the perspectives and scale of control found here, but with each new resource uncovered/discovered, another piece of the puzzle is revealed. All we can do is enter into each day with an open mind, heart and desire to assemble a unifying narrative that can be presented in a didactic manner to many educators. Did I mention this was a tall order?

Still to come this evening...a trip to sample some of Beijing's unique street food in the Donghuamen Night Market, near Wangfujing Dajie. Scorpions on a stick, anyone?

05 July 2011

Greetings from China!

Ni hao!
I'm entering my second full day in Beijing, and attempting to use the Internet in the business center.  It's a little bit slow, and very little beyond gmail happens to be accessible as the PRC blocks many websites, including Facebook and mass-photo uploaders such as WindowsLive unless you have a VPN...which I do not.  I'll find a solution, but it may take a while.  In the meantime, I'm sending a few photos in an email and asking Sam to help add this message and images to the blog.
The flight was painless; read quite a bit on my nook (they had outlets under the seats, so I could recharge at the end of the flight), watched 'The Adjustment Bureau' (thumbs down!), chatted with a fellow participant (9th/10th grade teacher from Hawaii) and walked around quite a bit.  12-13 hours later, we arrived in Beijing at the new terminal of the airport, all decked out for their recent Olympics.  I'm the only one muscling a monster backpack; everyone else is going old school with the wheeled Samsonites. ;o)  I tried to sleep for the first leg of the flight, attempting to manipulate my body into the new rhythmn of time...sadly, I was unsuccessful.  Since we arrived at 1:30pm (the next day in Beijing - hurrah for the International Date Line!), I knew I had to stay awake until the dinner/performance we would watch in the evening.  I went downstairs to the gym and worked out for about 30 mins with a couple of other participants, showered and headed out for our evening at the Laoshe Teahouse.
Dinner.  *Sigh*  The food here is amazing.  Seriously, they're not kidding when they say that Chinese food in America is quite dissimilar to what you experience here.  It is served family-style, all dishes placed on a lazy susan in the center of the table.  We had lemongrass tea (the best tea I've ever, ever had.  I'll try to find some and bring it home) and all sorts of dishes.  It is traditional for many meat dishes to be served first, with vegetables last -- this has to do with the yin/yang principles of warming up the system (body) and then cooling it down at the conclusion of a meal.  There is very little rice served with the meals, at least here in Beijing.  This is okee dokee with me!  Tofu is prepared here in so many different ways!  I feel that Americans have a limited awareness of how to prepare tofu, and even make attempts to hide it in dishes.  I, too, am a culprit in this ordeal, as I love to prepare tofu/ricotta stuffed shells -- the tofu taking on a similar texture of the ricotta.  "You don't even know the tofu is there, do you!  Mmmm, so good!"  Well, just three meals since we've arrived and I've probably tried about seven or eight different preparations of the lovely soy illusionist -- sweet and sour tofu is THE BEST.  Imagine little pillows of sweet and soft delights, delicately and just ever-so-slightly fried to a golden brown and drizzled with the most brilliant sweet and sour sauce in the galaxy.  Oh yes.  Brilliant.  I'll give you a sampling of the other culinary joys:  bok choy, fried rice (just rice and eggs), green tea and banana chips at breakfast, a visit to a noodle house - given a 'sanitized for your protection'-wrapped packet with a small cup, dish, glass, and chopsticks before the family style 'starters' arrive, then your noodles with choice of sauces and vegetables to mix in at your discretion, Peking duck - glazed and crispy, freshly carved near the table and eaten with mushu wrappers (think small tacos!), plum sauce and radishes, a mound of peppery tofu layered with sprouts, varieties of Chinese vegetables never seen before, dishes that just keep coming and coming and coming and coming...ending with vegetables and creamy, duck soup.  Wow.  I cannot even remember all of the food that we've eaten, but it has all been AMAZING.  There were approximately 15 different items served at dinner, in addition to the Peking duck.  Dessert is not common in China, and that's my one bit of luck -- otherwise, I'd have to roll home.
Well, that and the fact that we're walking.  A lot.  We were up early for a visit to the Forbidden City, which is enormous and divine in its historical significance to the imperial eras as well its sheer vastness.  My only sense of current culture shock is that many people stare at our group, as we are 'exotic' to them.  I happen to be the only blonde (how did that happen?) besides our director, so many people approach me and ask to take a picture with me.  It is sort of a running joke with the group, "You looked soooooooooooo uncomfortable when those two guys wanted to take their picture with you!"  I can understand, and I am obliging, especially when a boy (probably 9 or 10) came up to me in the Museum of Chinese History and said, "Hello?  Can you please help me?"  "Um, ok.  What do you need?"  "Please, please will you take a photo with us?  You are very beautiful."  His friend whipped out a little cell phone camera from somewhere and snapped a photo while we both made the universal picture-posing sign (peace).
The Museum of Chinese History and Tiananmen Square were part of the afternoon agenda; Mao's tomb was not open today, and I'm not a fan of embalmed dictators (historically significant or otherwise) so I was perfectly happy to explore the other aspects of the 90th anniversary of the PRC on display.  The museum had just recently opened a couple of months ago, and there were many people in town for the commemorative event noted above.  The primary exhibit that I explored was called, 'The Age of Rejuvenation' - which omitted quite a few events of (negative) historical significance and had a definite bias, but was interesting to compare to what I saw a couple of years ago at the Soviet Museum in Moscow.  Due to the Cultural Revolution, so many artifacts pre-1940s had been destroyed, so many paintings and sculptures to represent this 'Age' had been recreated to demonstrate their perspective (or what they wished to show) from contemporary history.  Many, many weapons and representations of the military, rather than what I wished to see -- representations and artifacts from the Chinese literati.  However, it was well worth the visit and put a time frame on many events in a way that I was able to understand the gestalt of this era.  Good times.


There are three 'Ts' that you must not mention in polite conversation with Chinese:  Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Taiwan.  We're discussing all of them in our group workshops and lectures -- it is fascinating.  More on this later, if I'm able...
A couple of interesting finds:
- Toddlers (and a few infants) do not wear diapers.  Rather, they have split britches and 'let it all hang out'.  Children are often allowed to relieve themselves in the streets.
- The traffic is less chaotic than I expected.  It's quite orderly, just very congested.  There are many motorbikes and bicycles, but not as many of these as there used to be about 5+ years ago
- Smog.  Wow.  It looked overcast all day, and the visibility is just about 3 NY city blocks -- at its max. 
- Food -- the best in the world -- yes, even better than (or equal to) Italy.  I am not kidding -- it is beautiful.  A well-balanced mixture of textures, flavors and delights cross the palate at each meal we encounter.
- Tummies.  It is definitely very hot and humid here, and (generally older) men feel very comfortable tucking their shirts up to let their tummies and lower backs breathe a bit. 
- Scale.  True to the post(ish) Communist visual preferences, everything is of tremendous scale when it comes to new architecture and sculptures.  However, there do not seem to be as many colossal skyscrapers as I'd expected.  Perhaps it is because we've only seen a certain part of Beijing, but I believe we shall see something to this degree when we head down to Shanghai.
One and a half days in, and I have only scratched the surface of the sensorial and enlightening moments experienced.  Others included visiting a perfectly created feng shui garden in the Forbidden City, lessons on Taiwanese-Chinese relations, contemporary art and censorship, a traditional shadow puppet performance (!!!!!) while dining in downtown Beijing, watching poodles (dogs are a status symbol here - you have to pay to have them) with dyed fur trapsing the streets with their owners late at night, the Beijing version of Times Square, fresh watermelons arriving in a motorbike sidecar to a small cigarette shop to be sold on the street, using Mandarin to request a wake up call (it worked!) and a few other, minor, phrases to get around....so much!!!  Oh!  There's even a gas mask in the hotel room!
No worries.  I'm having a blast, enjoying the tremendous learning curve that was destined to occur while learning about one of the world's first civilizations and its current political, creative, economic, social, and historical significance.  Lectures and workshops are on tomorrow's agenda.  The raising of the flag in Tiananmen Square, a visit to the summer palace, and the World History Organization conference will come in the next couple of days.
Thank you so much to all of you for your support.  I feel the most alive when I'm learning about the wonders of our world...