Saturday, July 01, 2017

Cultural Reflections: China

Culture Reflections:

  1. History - Chinese history is as old as any culture, deeply rooted in an emperor's dynastic reign in order to coalesce a very diverse group of people and form the monolithic, multifaceted society of today encompassing a land size equivalent to the United States with 4-5x the population as well as 5,000 years of history. Interesting enough, though, is that in the story we were told yesterday, the "villain" of our guide's story was female - the "Dragon Lady" (despite our guide being female). Lost in the story were the decisions of the leaders - emperors, democratic leaders, foreign puppets, and communist politburo (and all primarily male) - who made awful decisions that cost millions of people their lives. But I guess the Dragon Lady is on the hook because she was the "last leader" of the old system, even as the emperor had a brothel of 3,000. Interesting who we point our fingers at, and Americans are just as guilty. For example, we point the finger at Thomas Jefferson but give George Washington the free pass on slavery, though the latter had more slaves than the former.
  2. Family - the influence of the family couldn't be more pronounced here than any other place. Like many other (mostly Asian) collective societies, the surname (your family name) comes first, and your individual name comes last. So, in China, our tour guide goes by the name Li Jun, and we call him Jun or an Anglicized "John." Still, Jun is very close with his family, and his parents have helped him in purchasing his home in Beijing and guiding his decisions to move to Shanghai. Additionally, Jun's married a Polish woman and they have 2 children. You can tell that they mean the world to him, and that his dedication to work is to provide for the family. The fulfillment is in giving of himself for them rather than giving himself for his employer. Again, this is just my thoughts. Eric, a cousin of a good college friend, told me that living with his wife (who's full Chinese) has taught him the respect that one pays to their elders, even calling the grandparents by different names whether they're paternal or maternal. Additionally, cousins are called "brothers and sisters."
  3. Art & music - there certainly is plenty of amazing calligraphy across the country, and the billboards and graphite are equally emblazed with the loveliness of their words, whether they are. The music, at least in our local shops, is very much focused on the ancient flute pieces. Otherwise, they are very much influenced by American entertainment.
  4. Food - while the food choices sometimes look familiar (KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonald's, and so on), the food is very different compared to Americanized Chinese food. It's much less focused on the fried and buttery component many of my fellow Americans have come to love, but I enjoy their food much more here. This is especially true of the breakfast choices, as there are vegetables (wow!) for breakfast, and they're very much the centerpiece of breakfast. There's plenty of eggs, meats, and fruits to eat as well, but there's also variety. For lunch and dinner, the choices increase almost exponentially. I've eaten so many different types of food, and I've had an open-mind about eating them, even the things I haven't really enjoyed. I think I enjoy the sautéed vegetables and beef dishes the most, as well as those mixed with eggs. We had hot pot, where one makes their own food in boiling water, and rice dishes, noodle dishes, and so on. However, my favorite has been the dumpling. In the north, dumplings are folded and boiled, then served in a soup. In the south they're more intricately handled (and, thus, more expensive) until they're steamed. Writing about the dumplings is making my mouth water, so I'm going to move on.
  5. Employment - most Chinese are workers. In a country so large, it's impossible to know just how many people don't have work, but the Chinese government is probably the largest "business" in the world and can put a broom in just about anybody's hands at any time. While the average income of the Chinese is low in comparison to our own (the average person makes 1/4 what an American makes, $8,000 vs. $34,000). That said, the real estate market is intensely inflated - Li Jun said that the value of his property doubled in just 2 years. Eric lives in n apartment that costs probably $5 million, and he said the value of it and his factory property (4.8 acres to build a new facility) have increased 40% in just 6 months. People who are bought out by the government's eminent domain typically become millionaires overnight. Unreal! When the land bubble bursts here, it's going to hurt hard.
  6. Government - in one regard, the Chinese government is insanely impressive. They've added 7 subway lines in just 15 years here in Beijing and 17 in just 20 years in Shanghai. They have influence on their people, and their people revere its communist-capitalist, Deng Xiaoping perspective. On the other hand, the government is everywhere and all influential. Tiananmen Square is a great example of that - cameras pulling a 360 degree vantage point across the Square at just about every 20 yards coupled with the fact that the only TV stations on our set are CCTV (state television) and Beijing TV (BTV). That's it. Eric told me police don't sit and catch speeders - the all-seeing eye of communist government takes pics and sends you the fine home. The suppression of free speech and breaks in the collective thought aren't just illegal, they're not issued. Li Jun told me that if someone stood on a corner and yelled out that they hated President Xi, most people would walk past "and think that they're the town crazy." However, once a group demonstrates against the Party, that's a major crime. Compared with the United States, where the demonstrations for President Trump began almost on day 1 and the burning of Obama effigies happened almost as quickly, I tend to ask our public - what type of speech do you want? That said, a people are not their government. This American social studies teacher can relate to this perspective many times over.
  7. Social problems - the taboo issues here in China are called the "big 3 T's": Tiananmen, Taiwan, and Tibet. All of these are issues for the people and especially the government. For the latter 2, it's a question of self-autonomy. Tibet wants to be its own country; Taiwan, by and large, mostly "is." In speaking with Eric, he told met he other side of the Tibetan story, whereby the people there were tithing (forcefully) 90% of their income to the Buddhist temple. He seemed a bit exasperated by this process though he, himself raised a Jew but now identifying much as a Buddhist, came to see that not all of these issues are one-sided. He also thinks that Taiwan will never become a military issue because the economic consequences for the island nation, mainland, and the US are too high. Tiananmen, by contrast, was both he proud victory parade of Mao in the early formation of the government in addition to the moment in the late 1980s where glimpses of democracy and the hope of breaking the regime was smashed to bits by the regime itself. That liberal thinking of choice and free speech sounds like something that wouldn't just scare the bejesus out of the communist government, but of the Republican Party (where President Trump is interested in retelling the news, facts, statistics, and people's stories) and many college campus liberals (where those whom the groupthink doesn't agree with, despite how putrid and horrific their message, are quashed by the status quo). May we learn something from China and never be afraid to talk about our many misgivings - like the treatment of indigenous Indians, slavery, imperialistic aggression, meddling in foreign affairs, and so on - and having that be our greatest virtue. Keep in mind, there are many elected officials, especially on the state level, who are trying to whitewash our history in many ways. Don't let them pull that off.
  8. Language - If there's one thing I'm truly struggling with here, it's Mandarin. I guess I was under (the wrongful) impression that there were more regular English speakers, but that's not the case. While I struggle with basic communication here (I've mastered hello and thank you), it's a double-edged sword of being thankful the culture hasn't been permeated by the ever-increasing reach of English. Li Jun told me that Shanghai will be much more English-friendly, and for my solo survival sake I hope it is, but I've also learned a bit about the language. For one, pronunciation is key here. While we have homophones in English (like "bear" and "bare"), they have the same word "ma" with 4 pronunciations, which can mean "horse," "mother," "a finger wagging," or another definition - just based upon the pronunciation. While that's pretty difficult for me as an English speaker with little time (and rooted at age 34 in teaching an older dog new tricks). However, Eric has picked up an ultra-fluent ability with the oral language, and when an older Chinese gentleman came over to help us find stinky tofu, he backed away saying "Your Chinese is much better than my English." Despite speaking it most exclusively for the last 27 years, it's been very difficult for Eric to pick up the literacy of it. He said he knows approximately 1,000-2,000 characters and that's not enough to read a newspaper (you'd need 5,000). He said he still uses Google Translate to ensure what he's saying in an email is appropriate. The sentence structure of the written language is - essentially - a math and logic problem, adding the characters in context to string together the meaning of the sentence. This is important because many of the words (and even sayings) can have different meaning in different context. Think of "raising" a house versus "razing" a house, for example. I'm exhausted just writing about it in English!
  9. Religion - Religion is probably one of the greater differences between west and east. While we tend to be in our specific, often divided camps when it comes to religion (think Trump's Muslim ban, for example, in 2017), most people in here are atheist but spiritual. They're non-believers, but they believe in something bigger. They're not afraid to take this thing in Christianity and couple it with 2 other things in Buddhism and Taoism to make their own faith. I think in the west we try to peg people into specific denominations very quickly (I've been and always will be Lutheran, for example), but that's not the case at all in China. The government has now begun to permit many more types of religions (including Christianity), but whatever religion is practiced cannot take orders from another leader. So Catholicism, for example, is outlawed here. Most of all, religion is a principled way of life, one in which you don't embarrass your ancestors, both living and long gone. 
  10. Holidays - I didn't experience any major holidays while here, but during the big holidays (like Chinese Independence and China New Year) are marked by MASSIVE amounts of movement. Since so many people living in the big cities didn't grow up there, they go back home for the time they have off to visit. There's no way on God's green earth you'd want to be caught in the midst of that travel.
  11. People - The Han people are a very overwhelming ethnicity in China, dominating some 90% of the population (much higher than whites in the US or Europe). There are also distinct minority groups, like a group who lives in the far west near Kazakhstan that's white, Mongolians in the northwest, Muslims in the west, and Manchurians in the east. The interesting thing about these sub groups is that the One Child Policy doesn't apply to them. They can have 2 children, or, in some cases, more than that. Additionally, as China grows into an economic super power, you're going to see large groups of immigrants entering the country that might have gone to the US (we had an Indian bus boy, for example), as well as other nearby groups in search of better opportunity (like Nepalese).
  12. Clothing - I've found the clothing choices one Chinese in Beijing and Xi'an to be very, very, very casual. They observe almost no fashion rules, wearing kahakis and t-shirts, shorts and suit jackets, and socks and sandals. Yes, even outside of Germany and the States, this fashion faux paus is observed! In Shanghai, however, that rule does not apply. These people dress incredibly nicely, with women wearing heals or platforms to go with their skirts and straw hats, while the gents wear rolled-up dress shirts or polos. Most interesting enough, I'd say a majority of Chinese wear shirts in English, and I highly doubt many of them know what it says on their shirt. In some cases, they're very similar to what we'd wear back home (saw more than my fair share of "Supreme" shirts), but sometimes it's just minced words strung together to make no sense. I asked our tour guide Jun if this occurs in the states with Americans, and he said that Justin Bieber has Chinese script on his chest that's supposed to mean "open heart," but, since the characters are so closely plied together, it actually means "I have no guts.
  13. Sports - in China soccer, badminton, ping pong, gymnastics, and traditional Kung fu-like sports reign supreme. We didn't see soccer in action, but that's the rave here as it is much of the rest of the world (minus the US, which, admittedly, is growing quite quickly). I saw an advertisement containing who is apparently the premier badminton player, and that made me chuckle. I'm sure the Chinese say the same about us and American football. Ping pong, made famous with the opening of diplomatic relations in the 1970s with Nixon and Deng Xiaoping continues its influence as a man source of leisure today. So are outdoor parks, where I went and beat a 50ish year old dude in a pull-up contest (he challenged me to it) only to be completely embarrassed as he twirled around the two bars. Lastly, we also practiced some tai chi, and I plan on bring that back to the US with me to hopefully help strengthen my back and provide some inner-peace for this constantly going mind. Lastly, with Yao Ming making his splash in the NBA, basketball is the fastest growing sport. There were plenty of Stephen Curry ads here in just about every city, showing that the Chinese will play the hot hand in their culture. I only saw one Yao (a huge one, though) in Shanghai.
  14. Medicine - one American doctor I met on the Great Wall discussed the health care system a bit with me; as west melds with east, there are distinctly western hospitals here. That's what he was here for: to teach the doctors here how to do neurosurgery. He told me they've come a long way in hospital care, but there's still some ways to go. There are also eastern methods of treating illness. Compared to Europe when you walk the streets and see a big cross for a pharmacy, here these crosses are when people can go and get herbal remedies. When we were visiting the tea ceremony, the main selling point wasn't the taste of the tea, it was its health benefits. Additionally, Eric told me that he'd seen a doctor at the Mayo Clinic over his sciatic nerve and many other specialists in the states to help heal that. It didn't work. It wasn't until he want to an eastern chiropractor-like specialist that she cured him of that and several other ailments. The story of medicine here is "to each their own," and American is melding much of that eastern medicine to serve as an alternative to the care received in hospitals. Heck, it's serious enough that my back doctor, when I was frustrated with the lack of progress regarding the treatments he prescribed, told me to go to a acupuncturist. 
  15. Environment - there's no way around noticing that the air here is polluted and smoggy, especially in Beijing but also in Xi'an and, to a lesser-but-still-noticeable extent in Shanghai. The government, however, is on a blitz to clean that up after being a bit embarrassed in the 2008 Olympics, and factories are being pushed out of the major cities. Additionally, much like the U.S. in the 1890s and early 20th Century, the gross waterways and land that was polluted is now being cleaned up. Certainly there's room to improve, but coming from the guy who took his students on a field trip to the largest garbage dump on the East Coast and grew up on a creek called "Black Creek" from the gross coal runoff, we have some ways to go yet, too. But I can't wait to drink in American air again -- no lie there!

Post on education to come when I have time to write in the airport or on the plane ride itself.

Day 10: Shanghai Knight

Day 10: Shanghai Knight

Today I met a complete stranger and had a great time. My good friend Lippy saw that I was in Shanghai and asked if I wanted to meet up with his cousin who lived there. I figured, what the hey --- I don't really know what to do or the language, so the worst that could happen was I "get busy" and just head back to the hotel. But after a brief online introduction through Lippy, I figured he'd be a pretty cool dude to wander the city with, and that's exactly what we did.

Eric met me at my hotel after taking the subway in from his home in the suburbs. It was like a 40 minute ride for him, so that alone was a pretty hefty investment of his time. But he loves his adopted city of 27 years, and, as Lippy mentioned in our initial text, loves to show it off.

After brief introductions, we hopped in a cab destined for 1933 Building, which was a cool Art Deco locale that was set-up as a Bund slaughterhouse. The building is original, still containing the chutes that crossed from one side of the open plaza to the other and up all 4 levels of it. Now it's populated with trendy shops and architecture firms. It was a cool little spot to start the day, and I realized that architecture was Eric's biggest interest. I'm not particularly adept at it, but I can appreciate it enough since the Mrs. is an art and symmetry geek.

Next stop was another cab ride back to the French Concession. We wandered around a bit there, taking a look at the various buildings in the area, now mostly shops and banks. It's a neat bit of history here, as it looks more like Niece than it does Beijing. This was the only thing on my wish list for the day, so everything else was just under Eric's direction.

Our lunch stop was at a place called the Reservation. A western-style brew pub, my order of salad (Eric said I could trust it) and mac gratin required me to pick up my first fork since I'd been abroad. The food was dang tasty, and I had my first Chinese beer that I liked: a sampler of hoppy wheat, hefeweizen, cherry stout, and IPA was enjoyed in that preference order. God, I missed a good draft beer.

After this, Eric and I wandered around a bit, alternating between Art Deco, high-end shopping malls, and places where he was currently working on. His job is the owner and manager of a high-end brass door handle and railing factory and company. His work is ornate and beautiful to see online, but when we stopped at the 2 locations that workers were currently constructing, that added an additional appeal. Needless to say, Li Jun would hardly have had something like this on his travel guide list, so it was nice to live like a local.

After that, we wandered the streets for a while and, between catching our breath in the intense heat and humidity, would stop occasionally for a water or a pint. We capped off our night at a Mexican-infusion restaurant, complete with tapas and perfectly satisfying gazpacho. Then we headed back towards Nanjing Rd where I'd been yesterday to try some stinky tofu and then called it an evening.

This blog post is largely absent of photos and an extensive itinerary because, most of all, it was nice to make a new friend and have some good conversation. We literally had a free flowing dialogue from the time we met at 10:30a through our departure at 8:30p. It was fun to learn about how Eric got to Shanghai in the early 90s (he was a psych major from Drexel who just took a chance on manufacturing here), his family (3 kids who all seem to have their feet about them), his wife, his work, his adoption of the culture, the Chinese language, international relations, politics, religion, music, architecture, education. You name it, we talked it - and pretty much fell within the same wavelength most of the time.

By the end of the evening, he implored me looking into teaching at the American School here in Shanghai. I told him I'd look it up (I'm always down for adventure), but, I hardly think it'd ever be something Devin would go for. That's especially doubled down in buying our new house and having her family so nearby. But, at the very least, if we ever make it back to Shanghai (and I hope to bring Devin and Jonah), we know we have a friend to be our Shanghai Knight.

I'm off to bed tonight with some good news in my head. Our renter who previously backed out is, I think, now back in and committed as his transfer has been finalized. That's great news. I'm looking forward to packing my bag, catching a cab to the world-famous, and fastest train in the world (called the MagLev) as it zips 30 miles at 268mph to the airport in just 7 minutes in change. Then I'm on my plane back to the states. I'll literally move with the rotation of the earth, departing Shanghai at 3p and arriving in Chicago about the same local time. Then a 5-hour layover before getting into BWI at Midnight and, hopefully, to the new homestead by 3a.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Day 9: Shanghai Days

Day 9: Shanghai Days

Hard to begin here in China when I know things are so different back home. The Missus just texted met to let me know that the closing on our house was complete. So, the chaotic move will now commence. I know she knows that I'd love to be there (I actually plied our travel service about moving my flight to join everyone else on the voyage home yesterday), but they couldn't do it with out an insane fee. For those of you keeping score at home, I have an amazing, understanding, beautiful, intelligent, cunning, lovely wife and mother. Brushstrokes aside, here I am in Shanghai having fun, enjoying the fruits of everyone else's labor!

To begin the day, I walked to one of the touristy parts of the city called "The Bund." Located right on the water, this is where the western ships (called "junks") docked themselves to do trading with Shanghai. Google Maps tried to direct me to walk through one of the underground tunnels, but with pollution and so forth, I figured that wasn't a good move on Google's part. Guess that's what happens when you outlaw their programs here.

I boarded the ferry crossing the Huangpu River, and I wished I'd arrived at this conclusion earlier; it cost a whopping 2 yuan ($0.30) to board and get to the other side, the Pudong. This neighborhood was just a bunch of random farmland like 40 years ago, and now it's home to one of the most impressive skylines in the world. My ventures with that began with some famous xiaolong bao dumplings at the Park Hyatt on the 87th floor of the World Financial Building. It cost me an arm and a leg (100 yuan for 6) of these delicious dumplings, but, when you add the price of the view (you can see the beautiful Jin Mao Tower and the love-it-or-hate-it Pearl Tower. 

It took an hour there (mostly because the service was posh and, thus, slow) before I traveled next door to the new Shanghai Tower. Holy smokes, this was an impressive building. I think I climbed to the 189th floor for the observatory of the city, and the buildings I was just at eye-level with were now dwarfed by this super-structure. The building and staff were super-clean-cut, and if you want to see the notion that the 21st Century will be China's, look no further than the 2nd tallest building in the world. More surprising to me than it only took 45 seconds to reach the top on the elevator was the utter lack of crowds. If I were at the Empire State, I'd be in line for an hour or 2. Here, I waited for one elevator car until I made it to the top. 

Next I traveled to the Pearl to view the Shanghai History Museum. Frommers and Google Maps both didn't note that this building was underneath the Pearl, so I made an entirely lap around the surrounding park until I reached the entrance to the Pearl and, thus, the Museum. It was so darn hot that I drank 2 waters just in that part of the walk (11 so far today, if you're counting), so it was nice to get inside if just for the air conditioning. The museum was fun. If you're into model buildings and recreated people in scenes, you'll love this museum. What I enjoyed is just the tale of how Shanghai was settled by the west. I noticed, and disappointingly so, that the communist recapture of the city was very absent from the museum's history. Maybe it's too taboo of a topic for Shanghainese, as they couldn't be more different than the folks in the other cities we've met.

Some of those differences are subtly noticeable to the western eye. For one, the ability to read English signs is much easier. I was greatly thankful for that! It seems to be a younger city as well. This might sound shallow, but I didn't find many of the folks attractive in the other 2 cities - in Shanghai, there are beautiful people (and by that, I mean Chinese --- like the model I snapped a pic of in mid-set) everywhere. They also dress much more professionally than the other cities. For as vast and populated a city it is here, too, I feel like it moves with more ease than Beijing or Xi'an.

My movement next took me to the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. At a clip of 50 yuan (or about $7.50), it was much pricier than the cruise. Boy do I wish I hadn't done this stupid, campy laser and sound light show that took me back to the Bund. If you ever go to China, save your money. Seriously. I thought I'd miss something. One demerit for Frommers here.

On the other side, I walked the Bund and listened to the beautiful peele of the old church bell on the Bund walkway. It was music to my ears, so I stopped to listen to it for a bit. Then I hung a right down the expansive Nanjing Rd, the shopping center of this metropolis. It's so big there were 2 different Swatch stores on both ends. Who the heck needs Swatch that much? Someone, apparently. 

All along the way, merchants selling knock-off products flocked to me like I was fresh chum. I envisioned my wife politely saying "no thank you" to each repetition of "watches, bags, jewelry." I just pushed my eyes below the brim of my white pinstriped ball cap and plodded on. One gentleman was ahead of me and earning the same attention, so I caught up to him and asked him if he spoke English (it should be no surprising that not all white people here do). His name was Marcel and he was a German engineer here on holiday. We both were looking for the same spot - the Shanghai Art Museum - so we walked and talked together. I told him the city I was looking forward to next on the bucket list was his hometown of Berlin, and we had a good discussion revolving his city and how much we hate Chinese beer. However, when we arrived there, the museum was closed, so we parted ways.

I decided to go over the the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. At 30 yuan, it wasn't bad (but it wasn't free like the art museum). However, I would save my money and do one of the other museums. Two things that were pretty neat about the place: first, three guys sitting there and watching the welcoming museum were Chinese majors from Penn State who just arrived in Shanghai that day. They broke the ice because they saw my PSU polo. Second was the beautiful model skyline, which also included the many skyscrapers to come to Shanghai's skyline. It's got to be a bit bizarre to be a local and see that your apartment building is eventually going to be taken via eminent domain (the Chinese government does that plenty here) and have to find a new home. 

At the end of the road is the People's Park, and I went there with the intention of going to Barbarossa and getting a drink. It was closed, however, as it looked like some celebrity was arriving there. So I moved to a nearby street to find a drink and something to eat. I stumbled across a jazz and piano bar, and I saw American beer on the shelf so I plopped my tired, sweaty self down at the bar. I don't really like Goose IPA, but it never tasted better in my whole life. Complemented with a delicious lamp chop and great conversation from this fun, spunky, beautiful 19-year-old bartender named Liu Xinayng, I was replenished.

Back out on the street, I started to make my way back to the Campanile Hotel. That decision was cemented by the fact that sundown had already begun (it's dark here by 7:30p) and a slow drizzle morphed into an open pour. I also wanted to try to talk to Devin before she went off for the home closing (at 8:30a).

Tomorrow I'm back out there. I'm joining my buddy Lippy's cousin Eric, who's a business owner and has lived in Shanghai for nearly 20 years. Very much looking forward to some camaraderie again and my last full day in this foreign land.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Day 8: To Shanghai

Day 8: Journey to Shanghai

After saying goodbye to all my friends, I jumped into a cab and traveled to the Beijing Railway Station. The cab ride - which took about 25 minutes and cost an equal amount of Yuan - was a bit overwhelming. Everything I see and hear for much of the remainder of the trip will be, for lack of a better word, entirely foreign. The cab driver spoke no English (let's face it, many in America barely speak it, too), and, when I got to the station, I thought it'd be easier to navigate. There were huge hordes of people, and I traveled around looking for G3, as it was the only thing I had on my confirmation email. Turns out that was the name of the train I was to board, and, thanks to a bit of English knowledge from the Info Desk. I hopped in Ticket Line 41 because, as Jun confirmed in a text, that was the manager's line and he knew English. I wouldn't have known that any other way. 

I waited with the masses for about 45 minutes to get my ticket. I was about 3 hours early, so that was good! After a quick bathroom usage and a stop to a different Info Desk, I figured out that I had to board one of these 28 ticket check locations. It's pretty amazing and overwhelming in the same breath. Amid the sea of probably 5,000 faces, I didn't see one non-Chinese face except for a German dude who was running late and asked to cut in front of me at the ticket booth. Almost as soon as I wrote this, I saw a young man and 3 girls of different ancestry that were traveling together but not Han. They didn't make eye contact, so I didn't engage with them.

When I boarded that train car, I was a bit confused. I looked at my ticket "02A" and walked past the second row, which was filled with a family. I walked to the back, deposited my now very heavy piece of luggage, and then approached a woman about my age, pointing to my ticket and then to my row. She nodded her head, and when I showed the family, their young child of about 4 hopped up out of my window seat and, in cultural fashion, the mother who would've sat with me moved to the outside as the dad then moved next to me. It's just these small things to observe that just often tell us of others' cultures.

The train ride itself was very, very smooth. I didn't feel one blip in the track, and the ride itself was an express shot straight to Shanghai. However, I feel duped by false advertising, as this train is supposed to be insanely world class. However, the air conditioning was hardly on (and I was sweating from a warm brew of the heat and general ignorance of what's going on when I first sat down), no wifi, and no plug in for my phone / iPad, which is a far more important component of my ride now that the Chinese TSA confiscated my phone charger.

As you can ascertain above, I was pretty out of my element and felt quite uncomfortable when I first grabbed my seat. I tried to ignite an inner-calmness by watching a few videos on my iPad and then listening to music, but it wasn't until I listened to a podcast from home where they gave me props (so strange to hear my name when I'm 7,000 miles away) and also my new seat friend dumped gravy from his food on me not once, but twice. Christening by pork juice!

Now settled in a bit, I was able to really take in the sights of this journey. Having the window seat was the best part about it. As we left Beijing, I looked out to a vast forest of apartment complexes and many more being built. The fencing around the train coupled with the speed of the train almost out the gate made it seem like I was looking at a flip book of these massive buildings. Within 10 minutes of leaving Beijing (30ish miles) was the vast agricultural landscape that Mao tapped when he came to power just 68 years ago. Throughout all this countryside were nascent crops just entering their growth stages. Instead of sprinklers, they probably had decades' or hundreds' years old canals and irrigation systems. In a field of many acres, one could see the rare farmer and his or her wide brimmed hat tending to those crops with just the old hoe or shovel, or doing the more modern thing of walking and spraying for insects. The only "farm equipment" beyond that would be a motorcycle parked on the side of the road. No John Deeres here. 

Almost as rare as finding the farmer in all this land was the occasional grave site. When we first hit those open lands 10 minutes out, I didn't even know what I was looking at - a cemetery - as it looked like a bunch of walls adorned with colorful Easter eggs. As we continued on the journey, the grave sites lessened and became more rudimentary; those upright tombstones gave way to padded, grassless hills. Still, each one was always decorated with flowers (whether real or fake I couldn't tell) and always well kept, even when they were in the middle of a rice field.

Occasionally from time-to-time, a road would emerge with shops around it. However, these old villages were quite rare. What was more commonplace was just massive apartment complexes that seemed to rise for little reason other than their construction. When we travel the countrysides of America, those who live on the open fields would take the dozens of cranes constructing buildings at the same speed to be an affront on their way of life. But in China, that type of protest is both smited and possibly not even innate. 

Eventually I got to "talking" to the man next to me. His name was Wang Wie Qiang. He was there with his wife and grandson, who was about 6, and they were traveling to Shanghai to visit his family. By "talking," what I mean is I'd type rudimentary stuff into my Google Translate and then he'd motion or say the little English he knew in response. He showed me his trip to New York where he visited the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, and 9/11 Memorial. He also went to the Grand Canyon. I told him I hand't been to the latter 2 spots, and he laughed. Then it got a bit weird when he showed me a cross-dressing beauty pageant in Thailand. How or why I know not, but I think he wanted to get a laugh out of me!

When we got to Shanghai Railway Station, I got off and became disoriented. I tried to go to an automated teller machine to buy a ticket, but didn't see an English version. Frommers, in my mind, lied! I waltzed around a bit and then my anxiety took me upstairs to the airport to try and move my flight up earlier. It's only domestic flights there, so then I felt like a fish out of water. However, when I came back downstairs, I saw the subway line Google Maps told me to look for AND a machine in English. I was back in business, baby!

The subway station and trains are crowded and gorgeous, massive and modern. I've never been on a system that was so nice! Apparently it's already the world's largest (shouldn't be a surprise in a city of this size), but it glided like a dream. On the train I saw a much more fashionable lot of people, young and old. One girl who came on had this beautiful dress, straw hat, and a fun lipstick purse. I pointed to it and gave her the thumbs up. She laughed when I jumped off at the wrong station and then jumped back on.

As soon as I hopped out the subway, I had a great view of the skyline. It was already going on 9p, so I just wanted to get to the hotel and unwind. The hotel is as advertised: chic, French, modern. It's much smaller than the other 2 I've stayed in, but everything here is crisp, beautiful, and well-kept. I was happy to plop my head down on the pillow.

And eat! I hadn't noticed the anxiety made me not even hungry. I took a quick stop at a convenience mart to get some food and water, then back to the hotel to eat the like 8 lbs of snacks that Lori (teacher from OH) gave me before they all left. 

Finally fell asleep  after having the staff mess with my A/C for a bit (we're spoiled in the US when it comes to AC). I fell asleep before midnight and slept past 8a - a first great night sleep here in China, despite the warmth.

As I write this, I can't help but think of my heart back home. Devin, my wife, is doing a last walk through with our Realtor before closing tomorrow morning (late this evening our time). I'm very excited for us and her, and hope everything goes well in the venture to our new home! 

As for me, I'm going to spend the day walking the streets of Shanghai. I plan to go towards those massive skyscrapers first for some breakfast. Hopefully I can meet up with my buddy Lippy's cousin who lives here sometime tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Day 7: Art Museum, Beijing, Group Departs

Day 7: Rounding 3rd Base

This is my first time giving an update starting with the previous day's activities, but we hadn't a huge break in the day to post like I had yesterday. So let's cap off last night first.

We began the evening by traveling to the Great Mosque in Xi'an, which was built by one of the emperors as a gift for the Muslims there who defended him against a coup. The most interesting part of the mosque was the notion that there was NO Islamic architecture except for the mihrab. Additionally, there was hardly any Arabic script in there. After traveling in Turkey and seeing the script everywhere (for those of you keeping score, their language uses Latin-based script rather than Arabic spelling). However, in all the mosques (primarily Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia), the Arabic is everywhere. Here - hardly at all. The place was pretty difficult to take photos, so I'll try and see if anybody got a good one of the group and post it here.

Muslim Street was quite fun. Think of the experience of a street fair, and multiply it many fold. It took a good 45 minutes to travel through the place at a solid pace - of course, the occasional stop to purchase some shish kebab or another snack (I bought yogurt, candy, and a lovely phyllo-dough-like veggie sandwich as well). I think I spent 50 Yuan (or about $7) on all the things for the evening, so that was quite a steal - as is most of the food.

After breakfast, we started off the morning with a debriefing in one of the conference rooms in the hotel. I sat with RIch (Minnesota), Stephanie (South Carolina), Lori (Ohio), Sandy (Delaware), and Maryann (New Jersey, NEA Foundation Board Member), and Gerald (our token teenager on the trip). We had a really thorough conversation, and after a bit of ice breaking, I really got to know each of these Fellows a strong bit more. That was really powerful to learn that they felt their race was celebrated here, they didn't intend to enter teaching, they didn't know they'd be bilingual, and so on. Oftentimes I looks these types of "discussions" with fret, but I could sit down with any of these educators and discuss just about any topic in depth and detail, jest and confess. 

Maryann and Kristen (our NEA Liaison) asked us to consider the following questions:
  1. How we're going to bring this back to others? Rich (and all of us, for that matter) had fun asking Gerald this question and listening to his answer. He's your typical, close-to-the-chest teen, so it took some scaffolded questions to get him to reveal his thoughts on this. It's not a surprise that bartering made him feel uncomfortable, but he still needed time to reflect on what were the positives - but he did say that there was something to consider. Some of the other groups mentioned how it's difficult to bottle this experience, and I like that analogy. What goes in? What, if added, would dilute it? That's very much been the point of this blog, so I hope years later that, when I read this, I hope that I both didn't leave anything out or put too much in.
  2. How we're going to change? It's pretty intimidating with the idea of going to a country where you can't read a sign, ask for the bathroom, count to 5, or order a beer. Add to that the idea it's a communist, big-brother state, and I'd say many more than the average person would find some difficulty here. But in all adversity is a true testament of character and community, and I think this shared experience here - and being in a collective, social, family-first society, we relied on one another to not just endure, but flourish.

They also asked for three recommendations for global learning to our students:
  1. Get out of your comfort zone
  2. Talk to someone you don't know every day
  3. Build a community by finding commonalities in our relationships

Sharon (NEAF Board Chair) shared a great, heartfelt, heart-warming connection to the Foundation's mission that tickled my heart. She asked us to not just focus on what we saw, but really dig into how we felt. That was really meaningful. Similar words of wisdom came from Robert. He made the analogy that this experience is very much like when we enter places of imperial importance. For each of those thresholds, there's an uncomfortable step for the average westerner, where each is about 1 foot high. But after that initial discomfort entering the room, life - and the experience - goes on. Secondly, he said that after looking at all these ancient, mythological Terra Cotta Warriors, he realized he was standing around 37 teachers who are fierce warriors of education. How great is that?!

We then boarded our bus for our last official education component of our tour. It feels strange to see these words being typed from my hands, as we've had such an amazing, action-packed assemblage of workshops and visits.

This final stop was at a local art gallery. Here, we were greeted by a museum tour guide with a real great sense of humor. She walked us through the history of the art movement in the area, which is in rooted in the farmers who took up these part-time jobs once their wheat was harvests were said and done for the year. When they needed something to do, they took to creating beautiful art that completely lacked perspective. The pieces were as different as the composers and the periods in which they painted. We learned that the plum tree represents the woman as being beautiful, simple, and scattered among the brush, while the man represents the bamboo since he is hollow for learning humility and advice, grows upright strong, and performs his duty. We practiced our calligraphy script, at my table it was Maria (Arizona), Laticia (Colorado), Al (California), Robert, and Kristen. Probably the best person at the calligraphy we learned was Maria. Her symbols - both new and old - for man, woman, pig, earth, and horse were great. When the guide placed the script for horse up there, I yelled out "Ma," just because it's the only vocabulary word I learned on this trip. She said to me in Mandarin, "Oh, you know Chinese?" And I shrugged my shoulders. Gave us all a good laugh.

The gallery there held a pretty peppering of communist propaganda posters, but there was also a strong focus on the calligraphy as art. From the latter, there's been an art program launched that is now an institute, one of the best in China. As patrons, we weren't just welcome to view the gallery, we were asked to be buyers and sellers in it. That same guide was all up on my grill as I glanced through the decorative pieces. I wasn't sure I was going to buy one or not, but I then purchased one from one of the top students at the university who specialized in drawing little kittens. This particular feline is chasing a butterfly under the guidance of a plum blossom. I really think Devin's going to like it - at 600 Yuan, what I think is a steal, I hope I'm right! I also picked up a few book marks for just 20 Yuan ($3) each.  I waited in a line where one of the artists was going to write our names in Chinese script for 100 Yuan ($15), so Jonah would be able to keep both of these matching pieces as an heirloom. Jun, however, tapped me on the shoulder and said it was time to board the bus and travel to the airport.

I enjoyed sitting with Mandy (Washington) and Lori (Ohio) on our 40 minute rides to and from the museum, as I got to learn more about them, their families, and what they're most passionate about. Many of the group - these two especially included - are excited to go home to replenish their well with the family that makes them that much better. I can certainly empathize, but I'm trying not to dwell on that so much. Otherwise, my 3 days alone are going to be so lonely it makes Tom Hanks in Castaway look like a disco party.

I've enjoyed people watching plenty while here, but never more than our ride to and from the art spot today. Just so those of you who never come here know, the roads here look like chaos compared to those we have back home. Since the government controls where people drive (and most have only learned how to drive less than 5 years), many resort to using a motor scooter or bike. Both are mainstays on the road, but neither are regulated. So, say goodbye to helmets, crossing looking both ways, and, well, lanes for that matter. Still, while the commute certainly has its bumps and bruises, slowness to our cruises, the people just have enough patience to make it work. To what many looks like a complete lack of direction or following the road signs, this, to me, is freedom and community at work hand-in-hand. I've never seen anything like it - and I say that in a good way.

One other thing I wanted to note (in a not so positive way) was that this place is known for noodles, and the electric wiring on the streets looks like noodles itself. We received a letter on our hotel desks yesterday that the hotel was going to be shut down for about 2 hours in order to fix and check some of the electric, and when you look at the birds nest of wires (it's seriously nothing short of 60 wires coalescing in a ball on the pole), I'm surprised they could 1.) figure out what wire they're looking at and 2.) getting it done in that time. In comparison to the United States, I think we might have - as a maximum - 3 lines (phone, cable, and electric) using our telephone poles everywhere. 

On our bus ride over, Li June gave us the opportunity and guidance to purchase some of the things that many people look towards when here in China. I'm not going to go through this thorough, comprehensive list for several reasons, but let's just say that I was one willing to partake in what Li Jun calls "The Final Shopping Party." I'll get to pick up these items in addition to the personalized stamps for Jonah and his grandparents. 

As most of the crew here was happy to see and purchase food from either a Burger King or Subway, I wasn't ready to give up yet. So Rich (Minnesota), Maryann (New Jersey), Kathy (Tennessee Teacher of the Year), and Linda G. (Missouri TOY) stopped at the only authentic Chinese food place we saw in there. I ordered this huge beef brisket noodle soup. It was spicy, filling, and delicious - definitely better than a Whopper, no doubt!

If someone wants to check the character of this group, look no further than Linda G. She and I haven't sat together for an extended amount of time on the trip, but she tends to always be at my table during meals. She's as selfless as they come (and representative of that selflessness most of this group blasts from their veins), and she really is as interested in learning about the Fellows here as anybody, myself and my zany interview questions included. Her careful consideration for others was evident in how she was concerned that Dana didn't make it through customs for whatever reason. So she went to Subway and ordered food for her. I accompanied her because I didn't want her to be alone.

Once we hopped out he plane, I sat with David once more. I wasn't as much the conversationalist because I doped up my bloodstream with some Benadryl and Lorazepam. We also sat with Crystal (Louisiana) who's as kind as smile-filled as she is blonde and Cajun-twangy. When I finally came to from my really long nap (I didn't even realize an hour passed as we waited on the tarmac), I got to laugh at David who was watching some comedy showing on the plane. Though he didn't have any grasp of the language, he enjoyed just watching the non-verbal component of the film. I thought plenty of it was fun, too. We have much the same sense of humor, and I wonder if we'd be fired if we were on the same staff.

Off the plane, it was a straight shot to our hotel, a quick check-in, and then dinner at the Mongolian hot pot. That was a bunch of fun - I'd never done a hot pot before. Our room was quiet because I'm sure everyone was tired from the flight (apparently many got a good photo of me mouth agape, passed out), hungry, and probably ready to go home. But we enjoyed adding lamb, chicken, prawns, veggies, and noodles to our boiling pot of water. Jun told us the myth regarding this type of cuisine stems from the fast Mongolian army rolling through territory on horseback, pausing for camp and a meal by flipping their helmet, gathering water, and then adding meats once the water reached a boil. After he visited Ulanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia), he seemed disappointed that it was a Chinese (and not Mongolian) invention. I'm sure most of my Chinese-food-loving friends will be equally disappointed to learn that General Tso's are an equally mythical invention.

When we returned back to the hotel, it was like Christmas in Beijing with all of us lined up to gather our new belongings. Some of the teachers really went to town, but I was happy with my catch. The electronics I gathered were gifts for me, while I also picked up some Chinese stampers for Jonah and his grandpas.

When I woke up this morning, I got up with Bob and the others who were on the 7:30a bus to the airport. I wanted to have the chance to say goodbye to everybody whom I could, and they were more than 1/2 the group. While I've loved LOVED visiting this land, it wouldn't have been so magical without these people. I didn't open up the eye-faucets, but I felt a twinge in my heart as we waived to them on the bus. You'll notice all of today's pics are nothing but the folks, and, for those who are still keeping up with the blog or just traveling home from the Middle Kingdom, I plan on doing a brief bio of each of the people here, if just for my own keepsake.

As for now, it's 8:30a here in Beijing (8:30p for y'all on the East Coast on the previous day). In about 2-3 hours, I'll hop in a taxi, get to the train station, and board the famous Beijing-Shanghai Bullet Train. I'll cover nearly 1,000 miles in just under 5 hours and be in "the Paris of the East" by dinner time, just in time to walk around the amazing skyline at night. To say I'm a bit nervous is an understatement - same can be said about seeing my family and wanting to go home. However, the mantra of this trip is to live without regrets, and I'm going to drink up every minute of Shanghai that I can.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Day 6: Terra Cotta Warriors & Culinary School

Day 6: Terra Cotta & School Visit

The hotel we're staying at in Xi'an puts our previous hotel to shame in so many ways. I talked about it a bit before, but we really are spoiled here. Pumping A/C, multiple pillows, a refrigerator, a pool, a fish pond with sculpture around it, and a breakfast of champions. Best of all - the dumplings from last night were available again today as part of a spread that makes every continental breakfast I've ever seen look more like a sad island. I sat and ate with Logan (Hawai'i) and Melissa (Georgia) until I went and FaceTimed with Devin and Jonah a bit outside at the pond before it got too hot and before we had to leave.

Come 8a, we boarded the bus. I hadn't talked much to Jason (Oklahoma), so I sat with him on the bus for our conversation. He's an interesting dude, as are many of the folks here. I'm hoping to have a quick bio of all of them, probably on my train ride to Shanghai. But he's a calculus teacher and TOY 2015 who just left the classroom to finish working on his dissertation.

When we finally arrived at the Terra Cotta site, we were greeted with a rather new, old phenomenon. Certainly the age of such a marvel - dubbed the "8th Wonder of the World" by President Clinton in 1998 - is older than Christ himself. But the ruins weren't discovered until 1974, and this building wasn't opened until 1979. So, without a doubt, this a young find of an ancient order. It's estimated there will be upwards of 20 buildings, but so far archaeologists have only opened 3 - and 1 of them is hardly excavated at all. 

In total, they estimate there are 6,000 terra cotta warriors. Of those warriors, you can tell the different ranks or castes of them based upon a few different characteristics: their location in the defenses (the poor farmers are up front, probably with no weaponry), their hair or hat, and then the size of their bellies. Yes, in China they call a "belly" a "general." The most amazing thing about them, to me, is the minute detail. It's hard to see in the textbook photos we see of the Warriors, but the intricacies of how the hair is tied up all the way down to the BUTTONS UNDER THE SANDALS are as ornate as they are numerous. I couldn't imagine how many people worked out his thing to get it done in the 5-10 years it's estimated it took to construct, place, and finalize upon the emperor's death. Equally impressive is the fact that they colored the warriors with chalk and paint after firing them in the kiln. So far, it's been difficult to keep that upon excavation, but some have a slight stain of color as they unearth them month by month.

For the Chinese, the special thing there is two bronze carts that have been reassembled over the course of 7 years from 3,000 pieces each. They are gorgeous, and they were probably constructed to carry the emperor's concubines to the next world with him. For my younger readers or those not in the know, these are the emperor's "girlfriends." That's as PC as I'll go here.

One thing I enjoyed doing was speaking with several of the people I saw there. After seeing Chinese Han and other minorities time and time again, I was able to pick out more white faces in this crowd than others. Two I struck up a conversation with was an older couple who are from Arkansas and are over here as teachers at an international Christian school. They've been living in Chengdu for 3 years now, and the husband was the elementary principal while the wife was the director of counseling there. Their son married a local Chinese woman and they had the most adorable kids, including a girl of about 6 years old who was on my side and listening to my every word for a good 30 minutes. Coupled with the notion that I was thinking about Devin when I bought some ice cream here (chocolate = good, green tea = bad) and buying a miniature set of Terra Cotta Warriors and thinking where Devin and I could put them in the new house, I had some serious homesickness for my family the first time this trip.

I also enjoyed getting to chat with Dana, TOY from NY. There are many happy folks here, but she's always smiling. She's a beautiful, intelligent lady, and I didn't know she had kids older than me. She said she's the "token granny" on the trip, and we shared a few good stories from the classroom.

There's a lot of mystery regarding Emperor Qin, the man who built this tomb for himself. Though he was only Emperor from age 38 to age 50 (when he died of a heart attack, probably because he regularly consumed mercury thinking it'd give him eternal life), he did good by being the first to unify this vast land. However, he did so by conquering and then dominating the neighboring kingdoms, and the oral history of his iron fist is almost as renown as the name we use for his country (Qin is pronounced "Chin," and from there we derive the name "China."). That's because the historian who told his history was a man who was castrated by the emperor for defending a general who the emperor was trying to prosecute. So, no "manliness" led to a deity becoming a dictator. 

That's not to sugarcoat Qin's reign. The dude made his enemies his slaves (as many did at that time and, let's face it, some still do), but most of all he buried all the people who designed the Terra Cotta Warriors alive with him when he died, just so nobody would know how to do this again or, possibly, its location either. Still, Jun reminded us that historians have bias in how they report - or fail to report the facts. This lesson was compounded when I had a quick aside with Chris. While I recalled that we westerners name this land for the dominating unifier, they call their land "Zhonguo," or "Middle Country." In contrast, the Chinese call the United States "Maiguo," or "Beautiful Country." Makes them look a heckuva lot better than us, doesn't it?

The mystery of Terra Cotta extends to today in many other forms. Chris told us that it's going to take "many lifetimes" to completely unearth this magical find. I was immediately drawn to a comparison of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which is currently (and remains) the longest running continued construction project in the world. The church, which began in the late 1800s, is still being built to this day, and will take at least another dozen years to complete (Devin and I saw this for our honeymoon). But that was an intentional build with an end in mind. The Chinese don't even know what they're going to find as they keep digging at this site. Heck, they haven't even opened up Emperor Qin's tomb.

But one really great thing about this is the excavation is a universal finding for all. We saw a group of middle school students from DC there on a language immersion camp, and they were given brushes and plastic wands and told to dust off and even glue one of the warriors together. Talk about an icebreaker! For those of you keeping score, do you think that we'd ever let Xi'an residents go to Mt. Vernon and dust off a new stable of George Washington's? Me thinks not.

Lunch, like any other meal here in Xi'an, was a treat. These noodles are amazing, and the dumplings are even better. For how hot it was outside, however, I decided to have a salad. I didn't even think about it then, but that may have been a mistake here. Hopefully I don't have to go in too much detail as to why my body would be telling me such.

That stomach brew only worsened when we reached our next (and final official) stop of the day - the Xi'an Taoli Tourism & Culinary Institute. It was fun to watch one chef dice a Chinese radish into a rose and a cucumber into a crane, while another made the delicious noodles (and Rich of Minnesota did a pretty bang-up job replicating it, if I might add), and, best of all we got to make some DUMPLINGS (and then eat them afterward, of course!). Yet the thing I'll remember this place for most of all is the bathroom. 

Here's a quick side note on the Chinese bathroom. Many - especially the more rural Chinese - think that the toilet seat is a gross Western construct. If you think about it, a toilet seat is touched by many butts in a day, so, yes, I get their point. But I want you to think of the grossest public bathroom you've ever been in. Then think about what the porta-Johns look like after huge concerts like Firefly. Be Mendelev, cross-pollinate those two bad boys, and then this bathroom - and many public Chinese bathrooms - are much worse. If I got into the detail of it, I'd gross you out. So I'll stop there. But let's just say the difference in hygiene doesn't stop there. We read about how some kids don't wear diapers and just have slits in their pants to bend over and poop or pee through the slit. I didn't believe it until I saw a kid (about 3 years old) with those pants on. I was tempted to take a photo of it just because of how foreign it was to me, but the teacher in me kicked in and said "you cannot take a photo of a kid's bum." So I didn't. But worst of all was the kitchen we were in at the culinary institute. This gross bathroom was between 2 kitchens. Flies were traveling all over the place, and then I noticed that when the chefs wash their hands, it's like how 5th graders do it. They give a quick spritz of water and they don't use soap. God, my stomach is grumbling just typing about this, literally and figuratively.

Thankfully Shelly, a very thoughtful elementary teacher from South Dakota who reminds me in many a way of my own mother, was kind enough to place some peppermint oil on me to alleviate the stomach pain. So far it's working splendidly.

For now (6:10p our time as I write), our day is officially over. We headed to the Muslim Quarter of the town, where we can hopefully enter the Grand Mosque and then do some shopping and eating on the street side. It was such a hot day (it topped 100 today and many of us are feeling the effects of heat exhaustion), Jun decided to kick this can down the schedule. We'll see how many of the 43 of us make it out on the town for the evening.

Tomorrow we view the Wild Goose Pagoda and then fly back to Beijing, stay the night, and then most of my new friends depart back for the States while this guy's trip continues on.