China, 2013

January 15, 2013

Today I leave for a 3 week+ trip to China. Initially I have some factories to visit, but most of the trip will be in Guilin, China, in the “Chinese Language Institute” which offers an “immersion course” consisting on living on-campus, 4 hours a day of one-on-one training, and daily activities in the local city of Guilin where English is not spoken anywhere.


Tuesday, January 22, Guilin, China

Having a great time, and an unusual one. The days are filled with 4 hours of one-on-one intensive Chinese taught by young Chinese women; college graduates who have been teaching, typically, for 3 – 5 years.

It’s cold here. In the 40’s and 50’s, but so humid that it never feels really warm, especially indoors. I haven’t taken off my long underwear. Classes and meals are held in sweaters and jackets. Some of the teachers carry around “Nan Bao Bao’s” which are like little hot water bottles they keep their hands inside of when they are not writing on the board. They often have fuzzy covers with “Hello Kitty” faces. Meals are Chinese “family style” with about 15 people, staff and students, held at a big table with a large glass ‘lazy susan’ in the middle. Catch the food as it whirls around, if you can. It’s worth catching – it’s good food!

The room is probably “Five Star” by local Chinese standards; a space heater (which I keep cranked all day long), an individual water heater, a mattress that is well over a few inches thick (aka hard-as-a-rock), and fairly reliable internet. The cold tile floor throughout, including the bathroom, is always ice-cold. There’s a showerhead attached to the bathroom wall – but it’s important to close the lid of toilet when you use it to avoid splashing. Compared to youth hostels I stayed in when I traveled as a kid, it’s pretty good.

I’m here with about six other students and 15 or so staff members. They’re winding down for the Chinese New Year’s break when everything in China closes down for two to four weeks. Classes are all one-on-one and run from 8:30 to 4:00. They’re held mostly in unheated classrooms. I think nobody in Guilin ever takes their jackets off until spring.

There’s always stuff to do after class. Last night eight of us went to play badminton at the local gym. This afternoon I’m going shopping with Leona, the activities director, for a custom-made suit. Tonight, a group of us are going to see “Ling Ling Chi” (007) which just opened in China. Any remaining free time is for endless homework.

Week and a half to go. So far, loving every minute!


The Tailor Shop. He made me two suits and a Pea Coat.

Fish Head soup.

“You don’t want to know” whiskey.
Sunday at the English Corner

Today was the first warm and sunny day in Guilin. People still had their jackets on, but the sun was out and you could see a few patches of blue sky peering through the haze.

Today I was going to “English Corner.”

My friend Edwin in Nashua has some friends in Guilin he wanted me to meet. They were the organizers of the Guilin English Corner that met every Sunday at 10 AM. Like most of my excursions I had no idea what to expect.

Edwin had given me the QQ (Chinese facebook) address of Lisa, who had sent me the location, in Chinese, of the place I was to meet. I had carefully copied the characters for the address on notepaper for the Taxi driver. He dropped me off about 30 minutes early and I went in search of Breakfast.

Looking through American eyes, I saw a dirty, open storefront where a toothless old man takes 3 1/2 Yuan (about .56 cents) from the dozen or so people in line. As they get to window, a matronly woman spits a few questions then serves a bowl of noodles from a makeshift pot and adds chunks of brown stuff, a handful of green stuff, and a spoonful of balls of something-or-other. The people take the bowls to a table with a dozen cups of condiments, add several, then sit on kindergarten-style plastic stools on the curb where they prod their food with chopsticks until it slides into their mouths.

I watch this all very carefully as I stand in line so that, hopefully, I won’t look too foolish when it’s my turn. I know I’m going to have a problem with the questions and I’m a little bit nervous. If one of the questions is crucial and I can’t understand it, I may end up in an embarrassing situation.

My Turn.
She asks her questions. I nod and say “Hao” (good). Sometimes you can nod and say “Hao” and everything works out fine. No luck this time. She asks again. I have a line in reserve, just in case. “Wa schuwda boo how, Ka shu wa hung ue” which translates roughly to “I can not speak well, but I am very hungry.”

Success! She smiles, chuckles, and points to various pots and I keep saying “Hao” as she adds a spoonful of their contents to the bowl of white rice noodles. There are four kinds of meat on the cutting board. She waves her finger and I point to one – pork, I’m guessing (guessing is always an adventure). I added a few condiments like I watched others do, found a stool and began my chopstick attack. I’m good, but the noodles were better and I spent the next 15 minutes slurping up an incredibly delicious breakfast.

 The Breakfast place.

Just a quick note. Sunday Noon. I’m sitting on a large rock riverbank writing this on my IPad. There are a few dozen people milling around and several dozen deserted boats on the beach. Four young boys, maybe 6 – 8 years old, just came up to me, tentatively, oozing curiosity. “Ni Hao” (hello) I said with my most friendly smile. One child said “hewow” (like Elmer Fudd, Chinese people had a hard time with L). They giggled, started to back away and I answered “Hello, how are you.” They thought this was hilarious and answered, almost indistinguishably, “Fine thank you. How are you?” ( more about this later…) and ran off down the beach laughing.

Sitting on the Riverbank, writing this.
English Corner was wonderful! About 50 people of all ages met outside on the library steps. Lisa and Ammi introduced themselves. Chinese people choose English names because we can neither remember nor pronounce their real names. This group, some of whom can speak only a few words of English, others almost fluent, meets for no other purpose other than practicing English.

Immediately, I was the star of the show. I was surrounded by people introducing themselves. The standard introduction was this.
Them: “Hello”
Me: “Hello, how are you?”
Them: “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”

They are taught this from the earliest grades as a polite introduction. If they can only say a few words, these are they.


Mothers would push their young children up to me and say “Talk to him. Ask him where he is from. Ask what is his name.” They would dutifully try, usually succeeding quite well. Some of the older boys and girls were able to carry on a conversation and took this opportunity to do so.

People settled down and the speech portion of English Corner began. People would come up to the microphone and give a one or two paragraph speech about their upcoming vacation. One 8 year old girl read a prepared speech about how we have to take better care of the planet. One young boy sang a “happy new year” song.

They asked me to say something. I said a few words about the designated topic: Winter vacations in America. I was asked questions like “what did you do for Christmas” and “what do you think of National Day” which someone else corrected as Independence Day.

They all wanted to have their picture taken with me. I felt like a movie star.

Afterwards, they took me to a wonderful lunch, more pictures, and halting discussions in English, Chinese, and strange combinations of the two.

Definitely a highlight of my trip.



January 28

Living in China means never having to say “WHO LEFT THE TOILET SEAT UP!!”

Actually, this is a clean, classy squatter in a fancy hotel. There’s even a little splash guard in the front (or maybe it’s in the back). I’ve heard that sometimes when you see a western toilet in China, there is a sign explaining to the Chinese that they’re not supposed to squat with their feet on the rim of the elevated seat. I’m sorry, but I find these fascinating. Maybe someday I’ll even try to use one.

A “Squatter” in a fancy hotel.
January 28 – A Taste of Home.

Having a bacon cheeseburger with French fries. Amanda’s having spaghetti and a Coke. Neither is the Chinese food you get in America anything like Chinese food in China.

Photo: A Taste of Home. Having a bacon cheeseburger with french fries. Amanda's having spaghetti and a coke. Neither is the Chinese food you get in America anything like Chinese food in China.

January 29 An Experiment:
I’ve been noticing, since I came to China, that my digestion had improved. Several people suggested it was less meat that did it. So last night I had a hamburger, French fries, and a handful of Oreos to see what would happen at 2 AM.
Well, I was awake at 2AM, but not because of digestion. I had forgotten to shut off my phone and Bruce N. Anderson ass-dialed me at 2AM.
After the experiment, I concluded only that I have to remember to shut off my phone at night when I’m in different time zones.
Bruce’s butt says “Hello”.

January 31 – School’s Out.

Leaving Guilin today after a wonderful two weeks of learning Chinese, making new friends, eating strange and wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) foods. The school had a farewell dinner for the three students who are leaving. The restaurant made… a roasted duck inside a loaf of bread.

I’m a little sorry to go. This was a great way to spend a few weeks. Not sure how much better I got a Chinese — I guess it’s almost impossible to see one’s own progress with a language, but 40 hours of class instruction HAD to help. For me, vacations are better when I have something to do — something fun to accomplish — rather then just looking at China I want to participate in China.

I’m planning on coming back. I’ll miss it here. The last picture is of me with all my wonderfully patient teachers here: Leona, Amanda, Moline, and Avril. 谢谢老师。

On my way to Sanya, Hinan Island to meet Mark Looram, visit a Chinese animal hospital, and explore somewhate warmer areas. Yesterday in Guilin was the first day I took off my long underwear.

I think my suitcase is overweight. I bought two custom-made suites and a custom Ermenegildo Zegma-like peacoat for $245.00 from a brilliant tailor that my friend Leona introduced me to and I either had to buy another suitcase to lug around or sit on this one to make it fit.

I’m off! See ya!


Friday,February 1 – Guilin – in a cab to the airport.

As I learn more of the language, it somehow brings me closer to the people I’m passing on the street. Although this is my sixth trip to China, I’ve never felt as connected as this. Many ancient wisdoms speak of the power of knowing a name. Indeed, walking through the woods is a different experience when you can name each of the plants and trees you pass…. Just so, walking in the streets of China knowing a few of the words I overhear and able to read bits and pieces of the signs I see brings me closer to my surroundings. The world is more in focus.

Most terrifying moment: Every time I crossed the street.
Major intersections in this busy city sometimes have traffic lights and the cars usually obey them. The scooters, though, do not. Hundreds of scooters and motorcycles feel free to drive against traffic, cross with pedestrians in dubious crosswalks, shoot through red lights, and drive on the sidewalks (cars, not to be outdone, drive on the sidewalks as well when they are so inclined). Crossing the street is played like a game of “chicken”. Pedestrians, because they are smaller and more agile, usually win. Scooters come in a close second. Cars, with nothing to lose, don’t seem to care at all.

If turn signals could talk… Oh wait, they can. Here they’re called horns.

Most useless thing I brought: Rolaids.
At home I take one or two most nights. Here, not one. Not even once. Why? I’ve eaten late, had meat, a hamburger with salty french fries, alcohol, coffee, bread (although not much – could that be it?) , and who-knows-what. No heartburn. No bloated feeling in the middle of the night. In fact, I’ve slept well and felt great. I think I’ll try cutting out bread when I get back. What are they putting in my food back home?

Stupidest thing I did (so far):
My first order of business in Guilin was to activate my phone. Usually, I go into a 7-11 and get a SIM card which I insert into my jailbroken (so it will work outside the US) Iphone3. I did this in Hong Kong when I arrived but the cell services are different in Mainland China. I didn’t see a 7-11 so I walked into a China Mobile office.

It was my first day in Guilin and I didn’t realize that nobody there speaks English. The process was fraught with pitfalls. At one point the girl behind the counter called her boyfriend and handed me her phone. I don’t know where she got the idea that her boyfriend could speak English. Apparently I signed up for a one-year contract with the local cell provider which can not be cancelled before January 2014. According to Leona (who later helped me untangle the mess), next time I come to China I will have to clear up the outstanding bill ($20 or so) before I can get a new SIM card.

Funniest language mistake: A yawn.
I was in class with my teacher Moline and I yawned. A polite thing to say is “Bu hao yisi (Bow how ease a)” which means “has no meaning”. Instead, I said “mei you yisi” which is closer to “you’re boring”. Sorry, Moline. You’re not.

Biggest culture shock: In the supermarkets.
To say that a Chinese supermarket is nothing like an American supermarket is such an understatement. Chinese people prefer to buy their meat alive when they can because they know that they are getting the kind of meat they paid for, and they know the animal is relatively healthy. Makes perfect sense.
There’s a rumor going around China that KFC (popular here) breeds chickens with 8 legs. Remember that one?
Cages of live chickens, ducks, and other animals and tanks of fish fill the stalls. Shopkeepers await their customers with cleavers in hand, the sounds of which fill the air “chop chop chop” from adjoining booths. Stalls selling goat meat are festooned with goat heads like a hunter’s trophy room. Carcasses and entrails are spread out on the tables.
Throw away everything you know about order and cleanliness in our well-lit, antiseptic, muzak-in-the-background supermarkets. We have no idea where our food comes from.

I’ll miss the most: Eating.
In the US, eating is about manners. Napkin on your lap. Food is served. “Please pass the potatoes, thank you.” Use your fork and/or knife to cut your food on your plate, sit up straight and bring it to your mouth in small “bite size” pieces. Chew slowly, take a sip of water, and dab your lips with your napkin. If you get something distasteful in your food like a bone or piece of gristle then discreetly spit it into your napkin. No slurping. Those are the rules we all live by (yes, some more strictly than others, but we all know the rules).

China (as you might have guessed) is NOTHING like this.

Food is put on the table as soon as it’s ready and attacked by chopstick-wielding Ursula. No, she’s not here, but “Ursula, ” in Chinese, means “starving to death.” [No wonder Ms. Andress was so skinny].

It’s all about eating. Get the food into your mouth any way you can. Much of the meat contains bones (the meat near the bone is thought to be tastier) so pulling bones and gristle out of your mouth with your chopsticks or fingers and making a small pile on the table beside you is necessary. People will take pieces of food from the common bowl with their spoon or their chopsticks and put them in their own small bowl (maybe on top of rice) to eat, or they will eat right out of the common bowl. It would seem to me that if anyone at the table had a virus, it would be shared, but this does not appear to be the case. Only one dish I saw had its own set of serving chopsticks that were not supposed to be put in your mouth. It was a noodle dish and no one could tell me why it receives special consideration.
In Hong Kong, I’ve noticed, separate serving chopsticks are often used. I remember seeing a public service commercial on Hong Kong TV reminding families to use serving chopsticks.
Food is pushed, shoved, gobbled, and slurped until the last remnants of the bowl are brought to your mouth and shoveled in. Napkins are usually small pieces of tissue which you bring yourself and use sparingly. Fancier restaurants hand out little packets of tissues. Drinks are not commonly served, although are available on request. Coca Cola, water, and other drinks are usually served warm.
Through American eyes, it is thoroughly unfamiliar. I’ve come to find it both comfortable and effective. Chopsticks are cheaper (they practically grow on trees), easier to wash then forks, don’t get lost or stolen, and get the job done as long as you’re not eating greasy peanuts (a test they have been known to give to foreigners).

Oh, one rule of manners. You aren’t supposed to stick your chopsticks standing straight up in a bowl of rice because they will look like incense sticks and people will think you’re praying. OK.

The Western custom I miss the least: God Bless You.
Look, I sneeze from time to time. I’m not sick, I just have something tickling the inside of my nose. Sometimes I’ll sneeze several times in a row. I always find it annoying when people nearby, even strangers with no regard to any religious affiliations or beliefs I may or may not have, offer me a blessing — often several when I’m sneezing multiple times. “God Bless You, bless you, bless you, haha bless you again.” It’s like we’re stuck in a holy loop.

Saying “God bless you” is a throwback to 13th century black plague victims who would sneeze to announce their infection, then die. Let’s send “God bless you” back to the 13th century where it belongs. If you’re a stranger walking by me on the street and want to offer me a sacred blessing, you can say “God bless you” and get the strange look you deserve.

In China (or at least in Guilin), sneeze once and it means someone’s mad at you. Sneeze twice and somebody misses you. Three times and you’re probably coming down with something. People are too polite to mention it.

Guilin, and the Chinese Language Institute feel a little like home and I’m sorry to leave. Maybe it’s the people; Cory, Amanda, Moline, Avril, Leona, Sonny, KiKi, and everyone else and maybe it’s also because the last time I was taught to read I was at a very different place in my life; four years old and just seeing the world for the first time.

I’ll be back.


Monday, February 3 – Sanya

Had a great day with Mark Looram scuba diving in the South China Sea, hanging out on the beach, eating roast duck, and treating myself to two scoops of Hagen Daz. Tomorrow will be a quiet day, then Tuesday I’m coming home. Yup, I’m ready… even though the weather widget on my desktop says “Amherst, 18 degrees.” Obviously that’s C, not F. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Tues Morning, Feb 5 – Uh Oh – I’ve caught something.
It’s my last day here and the past 24 hours has passed in a feverish haze. I brought some antibiotics just in case and have taken them, maybe I’m getting a little better… maybe its just a chest cold, maybe I’ve contracted the antibiotic-resistant form of Malaria. In any case, I wanna come home! The 24 hour flight is not expected to be a picnic, especially if the health officials at the Beijing Airport decide not to let me fly and keep me in quarantine… I suppose I’d learn a lot more Chinese, still, not my first choice (nor my second… nor my third…)

Tuesday Evening , Feb 5, Which do you want first…
The GOOD news is that, for the first time I’ve seen it, there was no-one checking temperatures at the gate. All my worrying (aka freaking out) was unnecessary (as freak-outs often are).
The BAD news is that the flight was delayed and I’ll be coming home 11PM Feb 6 instead of Feb 5. Hopefully I can make some progress fighting off this bug on my one-day reprieve and have more comfortable flight home.

Wednesday Feb 6, Funny the way things work out.
I was so relieved last night that they didn’t have a temperature monitor on arrival. I’ve heard that if you have a fever they put you in quarantine until they verify that it’s nothing terrible… even though I was quite annoyed that the flight delay in Sanya caused me to miss my flight.
That night, my fever broke and I’m feeling a lot better.
BUT it turns out that they do monitor the temperature of people leaving on international flights. It’s very possible that if my flight had been on time, I’d be in a Chinese hospital bed right now instead of on my way home.

Back Home – Playing with the Contrast.

The supermarket I went to today was not like the one I was in a few days ago. In fact, they were a world apart. Everything about the Shaw’s in Milford was designed to shout “Clean”, “Antiseptic”, and “Untouched by human hands.” The market off the walking street in Guilin’s message was “you can trust this food because it’s still alive.”

Quiet Muzak in the background. The QUACK of a duck silenced by the CHOP of a cleaver.

The seafood server wears a hygienic hairnet over his beard. The toothless fisherman, grinning, reaches barehanded into a bucket and pulls out a slippery, struggling fish.

The Purdue Brand chickens are lined up in a row, standing at attention, individually wrapped and dated for freshness. The customers holds up the flapping, squawking bird and decides that it is strong and healthy.

The cashier places the apple on the scale which reads $1.15 – She smiles at me and says “Because it’s organic.” The fruit seller eyes me and says “3 Yuan” (.50) thinking, correctly, that she can get away with charging the foreigner 10 times the normal price.

When you play with the contrast or brightness controls on an image, you can see things that were previously hidden. When I play with them in the grocery store, I can see more clearly my attitudes, upbringing, and cultural assumptions around shopping and eating. The shopping and eating part is the same no matter where you are. Everything else from the soft Muzak to the fresh  blood running in the aisles is all just a matter of perspective.
Jet Lag and the mouse that hovered.

I was thrilled that I was able to stay up all day on Thursday. That meant that, perhaps, I would be able to sleep through the night and actually beat jet lag on my very first day. My sleeping rhythms had been so disrupted by the bug I caught that perhaps the typical week or so of walking around a little dazed could be bypassed altogether!

“… It was 2:13 AM EST. Somewhere, a mouse hovered silently…”

I went to sleep around 10 PM, feeling quite tired. Mor me, it seems like my sleep rhythms have to do with body temperature. When I tell my body to go to sleep in what it thinks is the middle of the day I often wake up at random times overheated. Once I can successfully sleep through these times, my body’s schedule shifts.

“… 2:14 AM. The mouse hovered over a button labeled OK and someone, perhaps we will all soon know who, CLICK!”

My phone started screaming.

Now I didn’t know my phone could make this noise. In fact, I also didn’t for a moment have any idea where I was. My surroundings resolved and I grabbed the source of the wailing to see an indecipherable message on the screen. OH GOD! Was it in Chinese? NO. I needed my glasses! I fumbled around for them. Still needed to blink a few times before my eyes could function. The phone was still screaming.

“Emergency Alert: Blizzard warning for your area.

Do you want to continue to receive these alerts? Click here to configure your Emergency Alert settings.”

I clicked OK. Silence — except for the frantic beating of me heart and the sound of my pulse rushing through my ears.  I stared, incredulously, at the blinking message.Seriously?

a) I know.
b) It’s winter in New England. If I hadn’t known, I would have guessed.

c) Good advice for an upcoming emergency: get plenty of sleep.

I want the name of the person who clicked that mouse and a petition around corporeal punishment (or have I been spending too much time in China?)

Will I get back to sleep? It’s 4:04 AM. I gave up trying and decided to vent a little.