Wednesday, November 26, 2008

From Kunming to Shaxi (back to Kunming) and then to Siem Reap

Well, it has been a while, I'm sorry. I'll get right to it.

We had our farewell homestay banquet and I headed home to pack and give my family their gift – a Peruvian Chess board. They seemed a little amused by it, but when I explained what it was my host father said his son (my absentee host brother) plays and I suggested he could teach them. Then they wanted a picture with me (so I taught them how to use the automatic timer on their camera) and my email address. I guess they didn't hate me. The next morning on the way to the car to drive to the University where I'd catch our TBB bus my host mother asked me if my parents had been to China, which seemed odd, but really her point was that if my parents ever DO come to China, they're welcome to stay with her (are you listening, parents?). I reciprocated the offer (still listening?) It was really sweet, actually.

So after picking up a last round of the best University street food (a ball of sticky rice with sugar and one of the "Chinese Burritos" – a thin pancake cooked on a flat black slab, covered with a spread around egg, chives, parsley, a crunchy thing and plum sauce (I avoid the picked root and the spicy sauce)) we headed off on our 10 hour bus aventura. (Incidentally, "aventura" has become our word for a potentially less than thrilling adventure…as in "Where's Isabel?" "Oh, she and Sandy went on a hospital aventura" or "What exactly ARE we doing for lunch?" "I'm not quite sure…aventura!") The first 6 or 7 hours passed smoothly. I made my Top 50 Playlist and listened to more of They Came To Baghdad, the Agatha Christie audio book I started on our way out of Bua. (The Top 50 Playlists were, I believe, Katie R's idea…basically each TBBer will make a playlist on their iPod of their 50 favorite songs, or the 50 songs they think everyone should know…mine turned out to be the latter. I can't say that the Lip Gloss song is a favorite of mine, but it would make my life easier if people understood the reference…and I feel like it's awfulness will be fully appreciated by many group members…if you don't know the Lip Gloss song I don't know what to tell you.)

And then suddenly, it really did become an aventura. Brace yourselves. We hit someone with our bus. Yes. Yes we did. Driving to Shaxi mainly consisted of country highways where our driver would honk and make people get out of our way, except this time, the guy on the bike came right at us. Amazingly, our driver veered left enough so that only the corner of the bus hit him. It still didn't sound good, but he ended up under his bike on the side of the bus and not under the bus itself which seems to be the better of the two options. He turned out to be miraculously alright. He also turned out to be drunk which explained why he didn't move and also why he yelled at Yuen and Charles for at least half an hour. Luckily (if you can call it that), Sandy, Robin, Yuen and Sam hit someone with their van last time they drove to Shaxi and they learned a few lessons from the experience. First, people will act injured even if they aren't to get money. Second, you can't just call the police, you have to get someone local to call for you so they don't just look at you as some foreigner whose fault the accident must be. Yuen called a friend to call the police (because even Yuen isn't a local…she's a city-dweller) and the police came, took the guy to the hospital where his drunkenness was confirmed (as was his being otherwise alright) and we continued on our way.

We ate dinner at a restaurant that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere just outside of Shaxi, but by that time it was dark so I can't say for sure. It was lazy Susan family style, as all our meals in China were. Honestly, it's disconcerting to order food individually all of a sudden.

We arrived in Shaxi at about 8pm. Our families were all waiting in the main square to pick us up and take us to our homes. Katie C. came with my host mother/grandmother and me because all the families had been waiting for us for so long that hers had gone home (we were delayed by the biker incident…).  It turns out that she lived directly across the street from me and we ate nearly every meal together, one day at one house and the next day at the other. Our families may have been related, they may have been really good friends, or they may have found it convenient because they both had host kids at the same time. Who knows? In case anyone has missed this point, I don't speak Chinese and no one in Shaxi spoke much English.

Shaxi was not at all like I'd expected, physically speaking. I'd been imagining a Chinese Bua. They had been saying "rural China" an awful lot. I guess it was rural. There was certainly a lot of agriculture going on. But where Bua had one hundred and some families, Shaxi had 4,000. I heard someone say 22,000 people. Only in China, with its largest city of 30 million people, is that a tiny rural village. The roads were paved mainly with cobblestone and there were some trucks and a few cars. There were also a lot of alley-type roads much too narrow for cars or trucks to drive down. There were all sorts of shops selling traditional shoes, food, baked goods, cell phones…in the main square there was a store with a sign out front that said "We Brew Real Coffee." And it did. Shaxi has just started to get more tourists and with tourists, apparently, comes real coffee.

Homes in Shaxi are traditional Chinese style houses. They are square with beautiful carved woodwork and tiling and are centered on a courtyard. (That description reminds me a lot of Spanish-style houses and actually, they have a lot in common with regards to the layout). They were houses in use, in no way well-preserved relics. The barn next to my room had animals in it, the outhouse was an outhouse that ran into the field and the upper balcony was used to store corn cobs and to dry peppers. My family had a TV and DVD player in their living room area along with two worn out couches, a few stools, a chalkboard for my little host brother and a circular metal plate on a stand that held embers and was used as a personal heater. There was a refrigerator in the kitchen and running water from the tap in the courtyard which they boiled for cooking or making tea. I've already mentioned the outhouse. I'm not sure how showering worked, though, because it was very cold and I just decided to be dirty for four days. You weren't there so I'm not apologizing to you :-P

Families in Shaxi were more traditional than in cities as well. While in Kunming I lived in an apartment with only my host parents (though, granted, my maternal host grandparents lived a three minute walk awa), in Shaxi I lived with a grandmother and grandfather, a girl who I can only guess was their daughter who was about 28 and a little boy who was 7 (which is exactly what I guessed…I'm magic!). Three generations in one house – the way it used to be all over China. Katie had host grandparents, but isn't totally sure that they lived in her house. Her house was bigger than mine so they could have lived in a section she never really saw. She also had two host siblings, a twelve-year-old girl and an eighteen-year-old boy who goes to school in another city and comes home only on weekends. Rural families and minority families are allowed two children, not one, and the families we lived with qualified as both rural and minority (they were Bai).  (As a side note, Katie and I just talked and are guessing that my host mother/grandmother was her host grandmother's sister or something like that).

My little host brother was adorable and very attached to me. In fact, he didn't like Katie at all, probably because I paid attention to her. We played for hours with little rubber not-so-bouncy balls, kicked around a soccer ball (as I tried in vain to get him to kick with the side of his foot and not his toe), drew on his chalkboard and played hop-scotch, which I taught him and he seemed to like. I also taught him UNO, the card game, which was a little difficult considering the language barrier and the fact that he was only seven. It was entertaining for the hour that we played, though.

The "cultural center" in Shaxi, or rather, the guesthouse owned by Sam and Yuen, was our TBB hub. It was beautiful AND it had wifi. What more could you ask for? Actually, you could ask for a dog with a severe but endearing underbite named Shahu who just had a tiny itty bitty puppy the week before we arrived which we may or may not have named Tabibi (get it? TBB?). Before you get all huffy about me not being in touch, let me say we were pretty booked up in Shaxi. In addition to eating three meals a day with our families, we had seminars, met with the head of the local middle school (which has 1,048 students – there is no local high school), observed English classes at that school one afternoon, taught at that school the next afternoon, watched a movie called Baraka, visited an awesome Buddhist temple with real monkeys and a giant golden Buddha, had a farewell party with traditional music and dance and worked on our media projects (which should be up soon, by the way, although they aren't up yet).

A few of those listed activities deserve elaboration, so here it goes:

1) The Middle School: There are about 2,000 kids at all the local elementary schools combined and 1,000 at the middle school, which makes sense sine elementary schools are six years and middle school is three (seventh through ninth grades…sort of). They start learning English in seventh grade and while the teacher seemed like a pretty engaging teacher as far as teachers that must teach to tests go, her English itself was not very good and her accent made me squirm in the back row when she had kids repeating "com-pu-ter game-uhs" (computer games) and "theeze-uh" (these). (Sidestory: they thought that "computer games" was the word for computer…Katie C and I – yes, we were paired as teaching partners, too – tried to remedy that during our lesson but when we had the kids repeat the phrase we'd written on the board, "I play computer games on my computer," they all added an extra "games" to the end of it. I think we did eventually get the point across, though.) The Chinese also call ping-pong paddles "ping-pong bats" for some unknown reason. But hey, they're the ping-pong masters so I guess we should defer to whatever they want to call it. It was a little strange when it was in the lesson we were teaching though. (We just taught the next lesson in the book because that's what the school wanted us to do and we ended up teaching for one day and not two because Friday was randomly declared a school holiday for some reason I can't recall…Dali province something day or something like that…)

o   The principal also told us that they have "labor class" at the school where they tend to a hundred acre garden (Hundred Acre Woods anyone?) which I think is really cool. We just read some of Gandhi's "India of My Dreams" and he talked about the importance of honoring manual labor so that kids who go to school don't all think its degrading to be farmers or factory workers or artisans etc which I think it a good point and relevant to Shaxi.

2)  Baraka: It's an hour and a half, no words, all images of the world. Pretty cool and, since humans have a compulsion to link images into some sort of sensical story, pretty interesting. I recommend it to you if that sounds good. If it doesn't sound good, you probably wouldn't like it.

3) The Buddhist Temple: It was very cool. I didn't have my camera, but everyone else did, so I'll be stealing people's pictures at some point and uploading them. Pictures may be a while, though. Sorry.

4)  Farewell party: There was traditional music and traditional dance (some of which was Tibetan for those of you interested in Tibet, because Tibet borders on Yunan) and when they were done, we joined them in a traditional Bai dance that was 90% the Hora and 10% very similar to the Hora. THEN we had to reciprocate the musical section of the performance which we had not prepared for…so we tried and failed to do the Macarena and ended up singing "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" from Mulan…there were about 8 of us who knew all the words. Probably not the best choice of song for Shaxi, China, but they don't speak English so they'll never know. I believe, too, that there is a video of all this floating around somewhere…I'll let you know.

5)  Media Projects: I'm podcast group this month along with Renee, Katie R. and Alexandra and I am very proud of our final product. There was a bump or two in the road, but generally we were a well-oiled podcasting machine. The recording is seven minutes long, so I know you can find time to listen and when you do, please pay special attention to the balanced volume of all the voices as well as the beautiful fade-in and fade-out of the music at the beginning and the end (both clips of music are from Shaxi). I don't want you to think it was easy though, so I'm going to add that I got 6 hours of collective sleep our last night in Shaxi and our one night in Kunming before heading off to Cambodia.

Which brings us toooooooooooooo: CAMBODIA

There are many wonderful things about Cambodia.

The first has very little to do with being in Cambodia: we get free time! I have  (among other things) this blog to write (nearly Check!), TONS of journaling to catch up on, postcards to write, photos to upload and organize and our enrichment week book to read (it's called How To Save The World…I haven't started it yet because I'm reading a thinish book I bought called Brother Number One about Pol Pot which so far is very good and quite informative since I knew little to nothing about the Cambodian genocide or Cambodian history in general before getting here).

The second wonderful thing? Mango. Everywhere. They peel and cut them and sell them on the street as snacks. You can buy them at all the fruit markets. There is mango juice at restaurants. Coconut too. Coconuts hacked open on one side make a great drink/bowl. Nature's own design. But mango seriously takes the fruit cake.

The third wonderful thing about Cambodia? No one yells. Everyone speaks relatively quietly (relative to me, not relative to people in China who speak at a constant projecting-to-the-back-of-the-Pantageas volume). More than that, though, people here are seriously nice. It's hard to explain, but it's not just polite, its like a general level of genuine friendliness that's just higher than say, Los Angeles.

The fourth wonderful thing is that Cambodian style art is beautiful (it helps that Cambodian people are generally beautiful so the drawings of them get a leg up to begin with) and it's everywhere. Our bit of Siem Reap is Angkor Wat Tourist Town so they sell elephant and Apsara everything in stores and especially in the main markets (one for day, one for night). Apsaras, by the way, are mystical, mythical dancers that came from the sea of milk as the gods churned it and decorate everything from the temples at Angkor Wat to table runners. This makes gift buying substantially easier than I have found it in the past…Although Peru was pretty good, too…Maybe it's something about enrichment week countries…

Incidentally, in my Peace Corps ruminations, I had pretty much decided that if I do do Peace Corps (and it's still quite an If, I'm just a big planner…I have plans A through about G right now for after college) I would do Eastern Europe. The two countries I want most to visit/work in are Turkey and Russia, neither of which currently have any Peace Corps volunteers, so Eastern Europe was my next choice. Cambodia, however, because of the second and third wonderful things as well as the fact that I have a feeling that I could be of use here doing something with orphans or landmine victims or just…something…has moved up on my list from, well, from not being on the list at all. Just a thought.

I also ran into a guy when I was coming back from the market my first full day here who was riding a red motorbike and asked my name. I said Becca and made to continue walking, but he keep talking and we were in broad daylight on busy street so I kept responding. I was careful, please no one freak out. It turns out that he works with an NGO that runs an orphanage for children whose parents were killed by landmines (landmines may be one of the more evil things in the world). It's 60km outside of Siem Reap, but he was lent the motorbike to come into town to buy more English books for the kids. They were $1.75 each, he showed me a bunch, and his job was basically to get tourists to donate money. He showed me a several photos of kids and books and volunteers and a paper or two from the NGO. It's legit, so I donated some money and made sure he got my email address and that I got his. I want to look into it and may seriously consider coming back and volunteering to teach English. That's actually what got me started thinking about the whole Cambodia Peace Corps thing – how I would be making a real difference in these kids lives by teaching them English. They would be able to get a job in a tourist related industry, which is huge around here. What an impact compared to teaching a huge class of relatively privileged and test-stressed kids in China. I have been left with a serious urge to teach someone something after that slightly frustrating teaching experience in Kunming. Oddly enough, that turned me more ON to teaching, not off.

We also visited some of the temples at Angkor Wat as a group yesterday and then about half of us went back this morning for sunrise. The number of tourists is staggering and I've become quite skilled at cutting them out of my pictures. Still, I'm much more attracted to the ruined temples than the reconstructed ones and tourists generally flock the other way, so for the final day of our three day pass (before out Thanksgiving meal of course) I'm thinking of getting a TukTuk to somewhere remote. (A bunch of people are biking, but oh wait…) There is something very beautiful about giant trees growing out of ruined but beautifully carved stone. I can't put my finger on it exactly…Maybe something about the transitory nature of seemingly immovable and incredibly important things. Maybe something about the beauty lost and the beauty remaining…the fact that it is possibly more beautiful this way than it was in its full glory. Maybe something about the poignancy of the lives lived and forgotten in that place, the everyday lives of courtiers and servants and the royal lives of the kings and princesses all gone, all equally lost and yet all giving some sort of power to the ruined temples. I love to sit somewhere quiet, close my eyes, and see, smell, feel, the entire place in it's heyday. Then I open my eyes and I still see it (thank you Strasburg sense memory training) and I can sit in the quiet and journal. That sounds like such a good plan. I will try to do that tomorrow morning. Right after I finish up my own petty life's duties and take my dirty laundry somewhere where it can become clean clothing once again.

I'm taking lots of pictures, Dad, and I may have even gotten you a souvenir :-)

I've really got to skidaddle now. I'm going to watch a movie with Katie C. and Ian and, not to worry you, but I really need to check up on what's going on in Thailand. I heard something about a bombing at the airport and the airport being closed…apparently the coup that's been threatening to happen for months finally has. We're supposed to go there next month, in case you aren't up on the itinerary, so we'll see what happens with that. Aventura! (But don't take my word for any of this news. Check it for yourself like I'm about to…anything I've heard has come from random Cambodians just chatting about it).

As always, I want to be kept posted on all of your goings on!

Much love from Siem Reap,


P.S. You'll never EVER guess what I happened upon while popping into a convenience store to grab one of these amazing pomegranate green tea drinks I've discovered here: A and W Diet Cream Soda! I know…what? I wasn't even looking because I was SURE I would be seeing that again until May. So. Exciting! Add those two drinks to my list of wonderful things about Cambodia :-)









Thursday, November 13, 2008

In Case You Want a Visual...

I put up some more photos on picasa ( Hooray!

We're working hard on our media projects for this month and finishing up teaching here in Kunming. (Incidentally, today Noah and I were absolutely mobbed by kids after class asking for "signs" or "names" and sometimes email..."signs," for those of you not well-versed in Chinglish, are signatures...literally, they wanted out signatures...I signed someone's ping-pong paddle. I was also given a little hand-written note that says, "Dear Becca/I am China girl. Nice to meet you! I welcome you to China. I like your class very much!/A China girl, He Xiangmei" which was very sweet except that I think she spent class writing the note and not actually paying attention -- that class was also the worst class we've had yet. No one paid attention. The teacher never showed up and Grace wasn't there either so no one could translate or stand menacingly in the corner, their mere presence keeping the kids from goofing off...and we teach 7th graders so the translation comes in handy does the presence of actual authority...we felt like no one was paying attention or getting what we were saying and then suddenly, after class, mobbed! Ah well....)

The point I was trying to make, however, before that lovely digression, was that we will be leaving Kunming for our 10 hour bus ride to Shaxi ("Sha-shee") Tuesday morning, will come back Saturday night in time for our farewell banquet with Sam, Yuen etc. and then head to the airport Sunday morning to fly to Cambodia! (We say Goodbye to our families Monday night, so there's that farewell banquet, too...Saturday night we'll stay in the university hotel.) Shaxi is rural and we probably won't have much in the way of internet so you may not hear from me for a while since after Shaxi we'll be traveling and settling in somewhere new. I'm pretty excited for Cambodia -- Angkor Watt, relaxing in hammocks (we've been informed that THIS enrichment week we will in fact have time to sleep :-)), the killing fields (back to business). Then off to Vietnam. Also exciting!

Keep in touch and remember the photos!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Weekend Update: Kunming

Saturday Night, November 8, 2008

Hello there, again!


Lucky for my 3 loyal readers that I have a free weekend and a penchant for procrastination :-)


This week was fairly uneventful. Nothing big to report. I didn't teach Wednesday, Thursday or Friday because my school was having exams, so I had a little free time, which was nice. It helped me catch up on the sleep I missed during that crazy Quito/Machu Picchu/Three-day-plane-flight-followed-by-jet-lag period.


I went to something called English Corner on Thursday night. It's a weekly gathering of Chinese teens, 20-somethings and adults who want to practice their English, so finding an American (or Australian or Canadian or Englishman etc…) to talk to is like striking gold for attendees. The only problem is that there are some people I would rather not strike me, but by the time I figured out which people should be avoided it was too late, as you'll hear in a moment.


There were probably 250 people, although it was dark and difficult to really get a good estimate. Most of them are probably very nice and very interesting. A good number want to ask about colleges in the U.S. either out of curiosity or because they want to take a year abroad. One girl specified that she wanted to go to a famous University. Having just gone through the college application process myself, I tried to explain about the value of attending a school that's a "good fit" as opposed to one with a good name brand. She asked about transferring universities (difficult but not impossible, I told her) and about changing majors (not really that difficult at all). In China, you can't really change majors which is too bad because it seems that no one likes the one they've picked. Granted, I've only had the "do you like your major?" conversation with about 4 people, but they were four separate conversations at different times with students at different universities and no one was happy with their choice. The general complaint seemed to be that their major was too difficult, although I have a feeling the underlying issue is that no one had a major that they found interesting enough to make the work go quickly. In the U.S. most of us are lucky enough to get to choose a major because we find it interesting, hence the wealth of "impractical" majors like English (…and theatre…). Students with impractical majors may face the occasional "what are you going to do with that?" but those majors remain popular, nonetheless. I'm not sure how majors are chosen in China, but I would guess that people's parents have a lot of say and that pragmatism reigns supreme. The girl I spoke to at English corner was a business administration major, or something to that effect, and she told me she really disliked math. She had actually been an Arts student in high school (when students enter high school they are either placed on the math/science track or the arts track which is more humanities based). Too bad her major was math based. She asked what my major would be and when I told her I intended to double major in theatre and international relations she perked up. Did I think it was important to be interested in my major? …Well, yes. I told her that I thought I would be much happier if I was interested in my major since I would be spending the rest of university and probably the rest of my life studying or working in that field. She told me that international relations was where her real interest lay. I suggested that there might be a way to work in international business, that she should be creative with her career since just switching her major seemed out of the question, but it appeared that her plan was to go to the U.S. and change over there. All I can say is that that's a long way to go to change a major.


That short conversation reminded me again how thankful I am for the American system of education, with it's emphasis on a broad range of subjects. I spent a few weeks at Oxford during the summer after ninth grade and I fell in love with the city, but even then I knew I would never apply to university there. The British system, in which you choose a major before you even arrive on campus and study basically only that subject for the rest of your time, is just not for me. The Chinese system is not for me either. I like flexibility. I like being able to double major in two subjects that seem wholly unrelated and not entirely practical. I like being able to take a class in philosophy or linguistics or the literature and culture of Southwestern Pakistan just because it sounds interesting. I like it a lot, and I feel very lucky to have that opportunity.


Most of my time at English Corner, however, was spent being lecture by one of those miners you wish had struck gold with someone else. What I meant to say is that I was lectured by a 30ish year old man with one of those protective face masks around his next for a good 45 minutes about food security in China. Any time anyone else in the circle that had formed around me changed the subject (usually to Barack Obama) he would inevitably interrupt and bring the conversation back to food security. Ocassionally he would branch out to food security in the U.S. or even "ecology farming" (which is NOT organic farming and which I still do not really understand). I know very little about food security in the U.S. I know we have the FDA and generally I assume my food is safe. Maybe I should know more about where what I eat comes from. That is a valid point and I'm pretty sure we'll be discussing that when we study sustainable agriculture in India. We'll be reading parts of The Omnivore's Dilemma which I know at least touches on that because I had bits of it read to me by a friend on an airplane last year. However, as valid as that point may have been, I'm not sure that was the point he was trying to make. I have no idea, actually, what point he was trying to make and during that 45 minutes I learned very little about food security anywhere. All I remember is that people worry about it and that people in Kunming really like fresh vegetables and they go to the market every morning to buy them so markets are sold out by noon. Good to know. I finally escaped by telling him I had to go find my friends. (That was actually true because when I finally came up from my underwater lair of food security fears and looked around, all the other TBBers that had been near me were gone. I had an apprehensive minute during which I thought I had been left and tried to mentally walk the route home, but luckily when I stood on a nearby rock to get a better view in the crush of people I saw that Noah and David were still there…thank goodness for tall people, particularly in China. The blonde and the baseball cap didn't hurt either. And so I made it home without incident.)


As I think I mentioned before, we've been reading Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (or POTO, which slips more easily off the tongue). It's dense and I occasionally yearn for a dictionary, but it's very interesting. The big question (at least for me) that came out of our discussion Friday was this: Can one be an effective agent of change without being a martyr? Freire's theory is (I'm trying to summarize here…) that the Oppressors (which would include me because I wouldn't consider myself Oppressed and there is no Door #3) are dehumanizing both the Oppressed and themselves through their oppression, but that any change to the system must come from the Oppressed. An Oppressor can basically defect and be in solidarity with the Oppressed if he or she becomes convinced of the need to liberate the Oppressed (thereby making both the Oppressed and their Oppressors "more fully human" – a term he has yet to clarify and which I find annoyingly vague and hand-wavey), but it seems to be impossible, at least as I'm reading it, to be in solidarity with the Oppressed without cutting oneself off from Oppressor society. It's interesting to think about this in the context of Three Cups of Tea and also in the context of international development or even just community service. Is it possible to help people without being "one of them?" If I want to help the poor do I have to become poor, leaving the trappings of Oppressor society behind me? If I'm unwilling to do that, is there any way I can still help?


I hope I haven't butchered Freire's ideas too terribly in that summary. I'm interested to see what he says in the rest of his book, but I have a feeling it won't answer those questions for me. I think we'll be talking about those questions for a long time…the rest of this year, yes, but even beyond that. Thinking Beyond Borders asks on its website: What does it mean to be a proactive agent of change? No one I know thinks they have the definitive answer to that question. There may not be a definitive answer. But I know a lot of people who are asking and thinking and talking about it. Now maybe you are too :-)


On a lighter note, life with my Chinese homestay family is getting better. I think it's a combination of changing expectations (both on my part and on the part of my homestay parents, whom, after their talk with Charles, have been slightly less overprotective…it's interesting to have gone from effectively being an adult old enough to have two children in Bua to a child who should be studying and living at home with her parents here in Kunming…many of the TBBer's host siblings are in their early to mid twenties, after all) as well as very slight but very useful improvements in my Chinese, their English and my miming skills. I dare you to challenge me in Charades after this year. I dare you.


And, in case you thought China was sounding like all work and no play (we do have Chinese homework, POTO reading, journaling, lesson planning and media projects to work on after all) I thought you might like to know that I've had a chance to watch some of the (bootleg…shhh don't tell!) DVDs I bought last weekend. Last Sunday night I watched Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, last night I watched Notorious with Isabel (so, SO good…I just love Ingrid Bergman…and Claude Raines…and Cary Grant…) and I'm in the middle of watching Bridge on the River Kwai (which I did not realize was quite as long as it is and may not have time to finish before I turn this computer over to Katie C. in about an hour…bootleg DVD's aren't always entirely accurate on their package movie length estimates, apparently…I should have known better seeing as it's directed by David Lean who also brought us such epics as Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). I'd just like to point out that I'm risking not getting to finish Bridge on the River Kwai so that I could type up this blog post. Then again, I own it, so I can finish it whenever I can next manage to snag a laptop.


However, the exciting moment of the day for me (besides getting to chat with the 'rents and Annie, I mean…maybe…) was finding a pair of jeans that pretty nearly fits and has minimal writing, fading, stitching or sequins. I didn't bring jeans on the trip and I have regretted that since we've been in a city and not a rural area. REI pants just don't measure up to the fashion standards of Kunming…or of normal teenagers…but people in China are small and a lot of the jeans are very flashily decorated so I thought a good pair would be pretty hard to come by. I looked a little last week, but today I met with success. Hooray!


I think I'll leave you on that very uplifting note. I know it just made your day :-P


I would sign off in Chinese if I knew how,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Little Break From The Concrete

Stepping back from the main plot line, I have some abstractions and side comments to share from the internet cafe I finally found in the first free time we've really had (thanks to the school I teach at having midterms today, tomorrow and Friday).

First of all, in case the news got here first, OBAMA IS GOING TO BE PRESIDENT!!!

Not being in the U.S. for the last two months (or, more specifically, being in a bubble of rabid Obama supporters) has made my anxiety about the election a little remote. While I consciously knew McCain could win, the danger was theoretical. I didn't feel it in my gut. Still, I'm ohmygoodness so excited. We got to watch a little of the election coverage on broken-up live-streaming from and I saw both McCain's and Obama's speeches (or most of them, at least). I thought McCain's was really classy. In fact, I liked him far more during that speech than I did at any point during the campaign and I think he may have been more successful had he struck that conciliatory, hopeful tone during the campaign. Then again, I missed a lot of the campaign so take my opinion there with a grain of salt. (WITH a grain of salt? WORTH a grain of salt? I have the same problem with "speak my PIECE/PEACE..." Which is it?) Obama's speech was pretty good, too, although that was more broken up so it was harder to get the continuity. I did appreciate his story about the 106 year old woman, although I thought there was something in it that he could have hit a little ended a little flat for me. Still, I teared up while listening, and I know several other TBBers did, too. I think Obama will be great for a lot of reasons, but since I'm traveling I think I'll only touch on internationally relevant ones. Obama is going to be much, much better for our relationships with foreign governments than McCain would. McCain seems to have a 20th century view of the world, where America is the only superpower (since the USSR is gone) and where we can do what we want, generally succeed, and still have the respect of much of the world. We may get that respect back with Obama in office, but I think our superpower days are over and we have to accept that. It isn't really such a bad thing, is it? Additionally, many people I've met seem to think that the racial situation in America is stuck in the '50's. While it is far from perfect, I think we've made progress since then and electing an African American to the highest office in our country sends a message to the world about equality in the U.S. It feels weird for me even to mention that, because while I realize that we've never had a black president (or a female, or any other minority group at all, really), it doesn't feel impossible (and clearly, it isn't). I grew up in a liberal area in a liberal family with a lot of books for little kids telling me that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted to be. I came of voting age at a time when Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson and Barack Obama were all viable presidential candidates and that seemed totally normal. I'll take that to mean we're making a lot of progress. If having a woman and a minority battling it out for the Democratic nomination seems normal, if what I was focusing on was less that they were a female and a black man and more on their policies and, let's be honest, personalities, then maybe presidential races with four protestant white males are really becoming a thing of the past. Let's hope so. (Then again, I really liked John Edwards, so instead of hoping for the downfall of white males in politics, let's hope to move to a point where race and gender become moot because their distribution among politicians mirrors relatively fairly the population of our country).

Second, books. We're currently reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is not an easy read, but seems pretty interesting so far. I'll get back to you on that. We have also just finished a lighter book called Three Cups of Tea. The story was fascinating and having read it, I'm glad I did, but I have to warn you that reading it was painful. It is just terribly written. I don't know how it ever got published. Where was the editor with the red pen? There are bad cliches ("Was the glass half full or half empty?"...referring to an actual glass and intending to be deeply metaphorical), overly sappy passages and some very awkward transitions, all of which I found incredibly frustrating. As I read, I felt they took me out of the story (and a lot of my margin notes attest to that...I have many and "ew" or "why would you write that?" scribbled on the side of the page), but having read the book, I remember the story fondly. It was pretty darn interesting despite the writer's best efforts to make me put the book down. I don't know if I recommend it or not. It depends on how picky you are about things like this...but even I am glad I read it.

Third, language and homestays. As you might have gathered, my homestay here in Kunming is less than spectacular and it's gotten me thinking about homestays in general. In Bua, it was awesome to be able to communicate with my family well enough to have discussions about politics, environmentalism and life in general. I learned a lot from living and conversing with Germania, Wilson and the other Tsachila. It was also really great to get to practice my Spanish. In Kunming, I am clearly not having those complex and fascinating conversations. I can barely say hello. (I am trying to learn, it's just not that easy!) Other TBBers can communicate, some well enough to have those discussions, but those discussions are always in English because being able to communicate means that the host family speaks some English and not that we speak Chinese. While it's great to have that sort of give an take with people from other cultures whatever the language, something about coming to their country and expecting them to speak our language sits wrong with me. China's government is convinced that English is an international language and so now makes it mandatory to teach English in schools. Still, I would much rather speak Chinese in China. I know I can't speak the language of every country I visit; that would be too much to ask, but for me, at least, it feels important to speak the language when doing a homestay. I'm coming into their home, benefitting from their hospitality and it feels like the least I could do would be to communicate, however badly, in their language.

Speaking of benefitting from their hospitality, I'm going to be late for dinner if I don't get home ASAP and that would be rather rude, something I try to avoid being. So I'm signing out for now. Keep me posted on all of your news.

With hope for our future,

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Chinese Epic

Kunming, Yunan, China

November 3rd, 2008

(I typed this up at home and am uploading it the next day at the university where we have wireless access…hence the date confusion…and the 16 hour time difference doesn't help either…)


Wow. I don't even know where to begin. I mean…oh my.


Well. After my last blog post, we took a train back to Cusco and arrived at our hostel about 10pm (having been up since 4). We all wanted to shower and then fall into bed and sleep for days, but this is TBB so what actually happened was something more like get your bags out of storage, lay everything out on the bed, reorganize, repack, steal a little shuteye. Hopefully everyone found a moment to shower and, fingers crossed, there was hot water left. I went for the early morning (4am…again) shower in the interest of not dozing off standing up with the shampoo still in my hair…the fact that no one else was showering so there was plenty of hot water was a lovely side benefit. After our last breakfast of coca tea we were off to the airport (where I snagged a Peruvian chess board as a gift for my Chinese host family to be…although we've since been told to give them the gift at the end so I still have it).


We took a short flight to Lima where all did not go quite as smoothly as planned. We couldn't check our bags through to Beijing. Six packs got checked through to L.A. which was the worst case scenario since we would only have an hour and a half layover there and we had to pick up the rest in Lima and recheck them. While at the baggage claim, despite the fact that we piled our bags together as they came off the carousel and stood in a circle around them, we managed to be negligent enough to get Robin's carry-on snagged from right under our noses. By the time we noticed it was gone, it was too late…just barely, which is all the more frustrating. It is not at all difficult to steal a bag in Lima if you're ever in the mood for some theft. You just grab it, walk 100 meters to the front doors and hail a cab. Home free. Unfortunately, Robin's carry-on probably had the most valuables in it, both financially speaking and in a more personal sense – things that the thief wouldn't want anyway but that nonetheless are gone forever. So that was less than ideal, to say the least. From there we flew to San Salvador and then to L.A. We had to go through customs, get our bags and sprint two terminals over. A customs officer complete with a bizarre 1am sense of humor helped us through the immigration line quickly, but we had to wait 20 minutes for our bags so all that initial hurry was for naught. Why U.S.A., why must you make us go through customs on a layover?


Well, we made it through, just barely, and along the way we picked up our new staff member, Beth. She's pretty awesome, although I'm afraid she got a terrible first impression of all of us since we were hot, exhausted and very cranky. I think she's warmed up to us, though. J


The next flight was a fifteen hour behemoth to Beijing and from there to Kunming where we ate a quick lunch (aka a HUGE family style Chinese meal at the restaurant of a fancy airport hotel…food here, incidentally, is delicious) and hopped on a private bus for the two hour ride to Tong Hai where we would have orientation. No rest for the weary, we visited "Tong Hai Numba One Middre Schoo" (for those not well-versed in Chinglish, Tong Hai's Number One Middle School) and taught an impromptu twenty minute English Class. From there we visited a private English school for children ages 4 to 12 run by a very jolly Chinese man named Albert. And then: BED. Yay!


Day two, or whatever you call the first full day in China, was October 28th 2008, also known as my 18th birthday. We ate a traditional Chinese breakfast in our hotel (noodles, chicken soup, fried dough, bread/cake…very good) and then headed to The Hill in Tong Hai for orientation at one of the many, MANY temples situated there. We ate lunch at the temple and had the afternoon off to explore the temples on the hill. I explored for about two hours, arrived back at our hotel intending to do some work, journal, read – something productive, but failed miserably and ended up extending my 30 minute nap into an hour and fifteen minutes until I had to get up to go to dinner.


Dinner was at Albert's school. He and his family cooked for all 21 of us. (21? You ask. Why yes. 15 TBB students, Robin and Sandy, Beth, Sam and Yuen, and Charles. Sam, who is originally from Virginia, and his wife Yuen run the SIT program in Kunming (SIT is the School for International Training…they're our partner NGO here in China) and Charles is a twenty-something Chinese guy who is working with them. He's very tech geeky and very adorable…and very helpful and on top of things.) Meals in China, or at least in Yunan province, seem to always be served family style. At restaurants this usually involves a big Lazy Susan laden with so many bowls that we have to stack them by the time they bring the last few (they come slowly with rice sometime near the end because eating rice first is desperate and smacks of poverty) and at a home it involves a lot of reaching and skillful chopstick maneuvering. Again, the food is generally delicious…particularly noodles, dumplings and anything tofu, although I can now say I've tried wild pig (like chopped up beef jerky) and, more exotically, bee. Yes, bee. It was fried and tasted…fried. But I tried it. Aren't you proud of me?


I'm sorry about all these tangential comments, multiple commas and parentheses within parentheses. There's too much to catch up on to make this cleanly linear. Anyway, Becca's 18th birthday dinner was at Albert's. I was having a nice birthday just hanging out with my friends and being in China, but it didn't end there. I got not one cake, but two because Sam and Yuen bought one not knowing that Albert also knew it was my birthday and had purchased a cake. Both were fabulous. One was covered in beautiful orange flowers (and I think tasted good, but it ended up at the other table so I didn't try it) and the other was themed pink, with a frosting horse (because I was born in the year of the horse) and a plastic flower candle (or, candles, rather because it had one on each petal) that bloomed when you lit it…inside it was sponge-cakey and quite yummy. Dayenu, right? But no. I also got a package from the home front containing not one but 28 Obama t-shirts of all varieties and sizes to share with the group (and, apparently, anyone we met on the street willing to risk arrest for too much political expression). I believe it was Alexandra who said it was the best birthday she ever had…and it was not her birthday. It helped that we are all very into the election and also that none of us had any clean clothing left. The Obama shirts were worn many days in a row. J Dayenu. And yet…also planned for that evening (although we all were exhausted…a 15 hour time change close on the heels of Machu Picchu will do that to you) was a concert of traditional Chinese music held just for us. It was pretty cool. I have a (low quality) video of a few songs which may someday make it somewhere where it can be watched. I actually am hoping to figure out how to rip the sound off the video and use it for the podcast I'll be making about China (we have new media groups in each country and this time around I'm in the podcast group). Speaking of media projects, they're all up now…or ¾ of them are. The Google Earth turned Powerpoint will be up soon…the website wasn't formatted to upload Powerpoint because we didn't intend to be making any…but it will be the best Powerpoint you've ever seen. I promise. It's quite good.


The next day we visited the number 2 high school in Tong High and bused ourselves back to Kunming to meet our host families.  We all live in apartments (I don't think there are any single family homes in Kunming), but beyond that there is a huge range of English ability and lifestyle among the host families. Some of the parents are English teachers (meaning their English is passable and they will at least occasionally understand you), some host siblings speak fluent English, some are learning it in school, and a few host families have virtually no English at all. I've also learned that some host families live in moderate apartments (palaces compared to Bua…with warm running water and some form of toilet or porcelain hole in the floor that flushes) and some live in ritzy penthouses (I'm talking 60 inch flat screen TV's, an upstairs with a koi pond and a ping pong table, multiple computers, cushy leather chairs and a banister painted with gold leaf).


My host family lives in one of the moderate middle class apartments (although not one that has been decorated to feel at all homey). We have a shower that will stay the temperature you want it to be as long as you turn on the electric heater an hour ahead of time and a real toilet. My host family does not, however, have any English. It's just me, my host mom and my host dad, neither of whose names I know because I couldn't pronounce them when they told me. They have a son, but he is at university in Beijing. The frustrating thing is that I'm sure he speaks at least some English because you have to in order to pass the university matriculation exam and going to college all the way in Beijing (a three hour plane flight away) is very prestigious. I didn't even have an English/ Chinese dictionary when I arrived and although my parents came armed with a newly purchased Chinese/English dictionary I needed one quite badly. Luckily, on day two, John came to the rescue by lending (/giving…I'm keeping it…) me his phrasebook since his family speaks English well enough to communicate. Since then, we spend every meal with our dictionaries and a pad of paper to write things down. My host mother can't really read pinyin (the phonetic-ish way of writing Chinese words with roman letters) so when my host father isn't home I have to copy down the Chinese characters from the small dictionary in the back of the phrasebook.


I'm trying very hard to communicate and to be polite, but it's been frustrating. First of all, Chinese people in Yunan speak very loudly, but my family, I've just learned, is from somewhere else where they essentially yell everything. And when they get frustrated they yell louder. Also, I spent an hour and a half Saturday night explaining my plans for Sunday, only to have my family override them twice. I wasn't sure if they didn't understand me (although I was sure they did) or just didn't care that I'd planned to meet friends. I'm getting used to the idea that although we aren't allowed to have cell phones, all the families have phones we can use. Today, after I told Charles about my trying Sunday night (which ended with me in tears for the second time in the last four days….the first time being when I got lost for an hour and a half and finally found two nice although non-English-speaking Chinese boys who could walk me home…and I was half an hours walk away from home so it was all the more amazingly nice of them to take me…I had been getting directions through finger pointing so I thought I was probably close, but no…not even a little…I've since learned my way. I think. I haven't been brave enough to try to get anywhere alone though.) Anyway, when I told Charles, he said I should call him if I ever have trouble communicating and I've already taken him up on that offer. It was helpful, but I don't want to have to go through him every time I need to tell my family something even remotely complicated.


I think what I'm learning from this is that while I'm a little uncomfortable with homestays in general because I never want to be a burden, homestays where you have no common language are just not for me. We do have Chinese class in the mornings for an hour, but I'm not going to become fluent in three days time…and I really need to be at least functional. I'm not. Plus, in addition to the frustrating inability to communicate basic ideas, we certainly can't have any sort of interesting cultural exchange through conversation. While other people have talked to their families about history and politics, I'm excited when I can tell them I'll be home for dinner. And I'm so used to either living in Bua with my 6 host siblings, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather and Isabel or in a hostel in a room with 5 other girls that I get very lonely at home here. Luckily we have very busy and structured days so I'm not home much and when I am I have about 5 different kinds of homework I should be doing and am always very behind.


Our daily schedule goes something like this:

8:30 – 9:30 Chinese class

9:30 – 12:00 Seminars or Lectures

12:00 – 1:00 Lunch (in the insane cafeteria or buying food from a cart on the street)

1:00 – 2:00 Teaching help and lesson planning

2:00 – 5:15 Teaching English at a middle school


When I say insane cafeteria by the way, I mean it. The three walls are lined with food and you push your way through the masses of people if you see something you like, point at it, have some arbitrary amount scooped into your giant metal mug (you have to bring your own bowl/plate/spoon/chopsticks…they aren't provided), put your meal card on what looks like an electric scale but is actually a scanner and have the price of whatever item you just added to your pot subtracted from your total. Food at the university is government subsidized and so very cheap, but street food is still cheaper. I bought three dumplings today for 1.50 kwai. There are about 7 kwai to a dollar. Yeah.


Teaching English is…interesting. I'm teaching at the private school (as opposed to the ritzy half/half school or the public school which has less technology but also only about 30 students in a class compared to about 60 at the other two schools). We went to observe classes the first day (we intended to observe English classes for two days before teaching) and met with the school's head. She informed us that we would be teaching in art, music or P.E. classes, not English classes, and that we were supposed to begin the next day, Friday, and not Monday as we'd intended. It seems that the school wants us there because it is prestigious to have foreign instructors and because we might be able to motivate the students to learn English as a way to communicate rather than as a way to pass a big test that everyone is given at the end of middle school and high school. However, spoken English is not tested, so they don't want us taking up valuable English class time so they're giving us art and music (and P.E.) which makes those teachers unhappy. They want us to incorporate art and music into our lessons, but we really can't, so we just aren't. They also really want us to teach about "American Culture" which is difficult since it isn't any one thing. It isn't really any one hundred things. But we're trying.


We went into our first day of classes pretty unprepared and generally spent the 45 minute periods on introductions, question time and some pictionary. ("We" is me and Noah, my co-teacher. He's the tall blondish one for any of you looking through photos. Some students are teaching solo because the schools demanded it, but the original idea was to teach in pairs and I'm happy to be part of a duo.) The English abilities of the students vary widely. Some have had a lot of outside tutoring, a select few have lived in the U.S. and many have almost no comprehension. There are 60 students in a class so it's virtually impossible to please them all and the students that don't understand don't speak up (since they can hardly put together a question and also because their classmates are not very supportive of botched attempts at English…this is middle school and it can be pretty brutal) so we end up teaching to what we estimate is the middle level of comprehension. Even for the best students, however, spoken English is very weak. A lot of the kids can conjugate to your heart's content on the blackboard and probably write a reasonable essay, but can't speak to save their lives. Chinese education involves a lot of rote memorization which was very obvious when we went around our first classroom having everyone introduce themselves. Each student would stand up, stare into space and say "Hello. My name is AB. My first name is B. My last name is A. My English name is C." Sometimes they would add "My favorite sport is D. My favorite subject is E." and they would always end with "Nice to meet you." Even when I approached their desks and tried to engage them, they would stare right past me. (Incidentally, some of their English names were quite interesting. There were boys named Amber and Erica as well as Snow and Beer.) Many of the English teachers don't even speak English very well. There's really no hope for the students if their teachers need conversational English lessons too, but then again, it's better than nothing and it would be pretty difficult to get foreign teachers to every English classroom in China. I think maybe the English of the teachers will improve when this generation of students grows up because China is just now instituting curriculum reforms to de-emphasize rote memorization and allow for some creativity…at least I hope so.


There's more to say, of course. Every day here is jam-packed, but I'm really tired, it's 11pm (and I'm ready for bed by 8) and I have other homework so you'll have to wait for my next post or buy me a cup of coffee when I get home. This post is long enough anyway…too long really. I bet 80% of you didn't get this far.


Also, FYI, I don't have much internet access. I don't live in a house with wi-fi or Ethernet as far as I know and my family hasn't offered to let me use the computer I just discovered this morning (or to watch any TV…and most families showed their kids the TV, computer and, as a few of our host siblings have, the playstation or wii the night we arrived…I feel a little unwanted, actually. All we do is eat.)


So, to summarize: the days are cool, but the family situation is less than ideal. It's frustrating and rather lonely. I really wish I had a sibling because he/she would either be old enough to speak at least some English and relate to me or be young enough so that language would be unnecessary and we could just play. I'm the only TBBer without a host sibling, although the host siblings do show varying levels of interest in us…some TBBers get followed everywhere and some have exchanged only a cursory hello so I guess a sibling wouldn't really be a silver bullet to make this experience happier. I do enjoy the days, though, and I'm only in this house for another two weeks so I'll be fine. Maybe it'll get better.


On a lighter note, I purchased quite a few very cheap DVD's here which is very exciting as well as a blue and white striped sweatshirt which is very comfy and wonderful because it can get pretty cold here (and I lost my fleece in transit somewhere between Machu Picchu and Kunming).


So, that's the update. Sorry for the lack of organization and the less than beautiful writing.


Much love,



P.S. Election TOMORROW!!! (Sort of…we're about 16 hours ahead of California time so it's tomorrow and a half…we get to watch, or try to watch if we can get a good enough internet connection to do any live streaming, election returns on Wednesday morning…nervous time…) Can you believe we're actually having the election after nearly two years of campaigning? It's nuts.