Archive for January, 2009

DVD players in aisle 4

Today we left China for a few hours. We hopped on the subway to the south side of town, and then took a short cab ride to the outskirts of the city. The further away we went, the closer we started feeling to life back home in America.

We passed car dealerships, large sporting goods stores, and even an IKEA home furnishings store. Our destination: Metro – the most comprehensive import store in Nanjing. It had taken us a year, but we were finally ready for the pilgrimage.

Metro is a membership exclusive store, requiring registration like a Costco or Sam’s store. Unless you’re a foreigner. They must presume our kind has good money to spend, so we are welcomed with a visitor’s pass each time we come. The sight that met us inside – flat screen TV’s, treadmills, slow cookers, English ales, avocados! – sent us running from aisle to aisle, dreaming of the kind of life we could create here if only we had unlimited means. We picked up only a few necessities instead, some baby wash for Leo, baking powder, walnuts, and imported milk. But we dreamed about outfitting our kitchen with a toaster, steel pots and pans, and Henckels cutlery, and buying enough avocados to make guacamole.

The experience on the one hand was one of relief. We can get so many things here to which we were accustomed back home. But on the other hand, the question nowadays keeps presenting itself to us: did we come to China to live similarly to life back home? After all, this really isn’t the China we came here expecting. Did we get here too late for that? Did we miss that China?

No- it’s still all around us, on every street corner, in every factory, in 90% of the lives of this city’s residents. They don’t have the means to live with the new affluence. But we ourselves, through strategic maneuvering, could choose to live there and avoid the reality of a harder life. Just being American gives us that choice here. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but the choice is there all the same.

For now, we will forego the IKEA bedroom set, the tilapia fillets, and the guacamole. Fried rice will suffice for lunch, and we’ll enjoy having the chance to listen to the chef’s slurred Mandarin while we hear about his family back home in the country.

Ringing in the year

Last night at midnight China exploded.

We were already asleep in bed, the New Year’s eve fireworks having eased up around 10pm. But at midnight, a monsoon of fire sprang up over all the rooftops in Nanjing. From every boulevard, avenue, and even many small alleyways came soaring explosions of red, gold, green, blue, and purple starbursts. The explosions weren’t only overhead- people were dropping lit chains of firecrackers from their apartment windows down to the street below. It was a symphony of exploding that must have been heard from miles away (presuming the outlying areas didn’t have their own artillery!).

We won’t forget this night. Leo was oblivious for the first ten minutes, but the force of explosions eventually roused him from a blissful sleep. When the supplies started running out after forty-five minutes, the city started quieting again. Leo somehow managed to ignore the straggler explosions and fell back asleep in his crib. We had to wait until about 1:30, and finally relative quiet returned to Nanjing.

Until 6am that is. Early birds let us know that Spring Festival was well under way! Some people obviously have stockpiles of fireworks to last more than a passing evening! We don’t expect all of this to stop until two weeks from now, when Lantern Festival spells the end of the celebratory period.

If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

Happy New Year (again)

Xin nian kuai le!

We are in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebration, this being the eve of the lunar new year. At midnight tonight, the year of the ox will replace the year of the mouse.

The city of Nanjing has emptied- all of the storefronts are closed, and will stay that way for at least three days, most likely six. Probably 3 million of the city’s residents have set out for their hometowns, leaving behind a metropolis eerily bereft of normal hustle and bustle. We feel like we have the town to ourselves!

The fireworks started today about lunchtime. Strings of firecrackers hiss down at street side all up and down the boulevards, and the exploding rockets burst right out our seventh-floor apartment windows. It sounds literally like a war zone. We don’t expect to get much sleep tonight, but what a sight!

With all the rest of the Chinese, we wish you a happy lunar new year!

In Xining

I’m(JM) off of school, teaching has wound down, so what better way to spend a few weeks than catching a train to Tibet? I’m halfway there on a trip with two friends. We’re going to wind through Lhasa all the way through the main Tibetan cities, and end up at Mt. Everest base camp!

I’m halfway there already, stopped over in Xining, a city in central China that is the starting point of the Tibetan railway. This city is a huge lesson in contrasting cultures. There are four different races represented here fairly equally, and racial tensions are in fact very high. There are the typical Han Chinese, the majority ethnic race in China. But added are thousands upon thousands of Mongols, Muslim Chinese (the Hui), and Tibetans. In fact, there are two different groups of Tibetans, the Amdo and Kham, and they don’t like each other very much either. We’ve been told there are a lot of knife fights in town (guns are illegal here- more illegal than in the US).

In a way, the contrasting cultures make a fascinating city scape, with Tibetan Bhuddist temples right next to Islamic mosques, and certainly a wide array of food. It is a big contrast from Nanjing, a predominantly Han Chinese city.

Tonight I board the evening train for Lhasa, and arrive 24 hours later at an altitude of 3500 meters. Breathing may be difficult!

If anyone is interested in travel here as well, I highly recommend the agency we’re using: Tibetanconnections.com They are super reliable and affordable.

Bon voyage!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

It has been a whirlwind of a holiday season here. And so we belatedly wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Although China has all the trappings of a commercial Christmas for sale – Santa Claus decorations, fake trees and ornaments, tinsel and garlands galore, and even the street sweeping machines, which usually play “Happy Birthday” to signal their coming, switched to “Jingle Bells” for the Christmas season – it is still business as usual here. So we tried to balance our work commitments and attempted to celebrate Christmas as best as possible! We have a tiny tree set up in our apartment, along with a wreath on the door. Liz made fudge, and we made a special meal or two during the holiday week with friends. Leo enjoyed the time as well and received a few new toys. We took him to the Toys ‘R Us in town on Christmas Day after going to church as a treat – He LOVES that place and can play on all of their toys (in the heated warmth of the store) for free. He made his first solo trip down the play slide that day and loved it – brave boy!

We found out that many people here do celebrate Christmas, but mostly as an opportunity to go out and ‘play’. Our students and friends tell us it’s especially very trendy for young adults and teens to celebrate Christmas. Liz found this out when she arrived on Christmas Day to teach for four hours and only had a few students in each of her classes. She scrapped her formal lesson plan and taught her students “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” – which was a lot more fun than teaching them about gerunds and present progressives! She also shared with everyone her family’s Christmas traditions. They were especially impressed to hear that her family sometimes went out into the woods and chopped down their own fresh Christmas tree on Christmas Eve.

We dearly missed all of our family and friends this year! It is very different to celebrate Christmas here, but it was nonetheless special. Holding on to our own traditions while we learn another country’s traditions has become more important to us as this first year in China passes.

Our thoughts are with you and have been this holiday season.