one last story

ChinaMoiLotus I've been saving the best for last, not only because that's when it happened, but because it's a good place to sum up. I meant to get to it earlier, but my back has been out and I've been more or less flat on it when I'm not going to the chiropractor or getting a massage. It's also been unspeakably hot here in NYC (I miss my Harbin AC!), which never makes me happy. And the jet lag has been, in a word, awful: in bed at 9:30, up at 5:30. Ugh.

But all that inactivity has given me time to digest and distill the trip, and other people's questions have made me think about the highlights. To be honest, I have to say that China is still not my number one choice of places to go, but in all fairness, I saw a very small and untouristy part of the country. In many ways that's good: I got to meet people one normally wouldn't on a vacation and see more of the "real" China than tourists usually do. In another way, I feel a bit cheated; the area we were in was heavily Russian/Western influenced and not, I think, "typical" if there can be such a thing in a country as big as China. It's like coming to, say, Indianapolis and judging all of the US by it. Except that China has this very old culture, and much of Harbin felt, in comparison, quite new, even the parts that date back to the 19th Century. Because in 3,000 years of history, that's pretty darn new.

One of the things I'm coming to realize now, looking back, is how entrenched that culture is. The sense of continuity is like oil on water. Sure there have been wars, but they seem to have the air (and this just may be my ignorance) of wars of succession, rather than wars of revolution. Even Mao, whose ideas truly were revolutionary, didn't completely succeed in upending thousands of years of culture. The Imperial bureaucracy is still there; only the name has really changed. If there's any one reason for that (and there never is), I think it boils down to the contrast between the western desire for progress and change and the Chinese respect for the past and tradition. I think that reverence for the past made China lose some of the momentum it once had in science and technology. Turning inward will do that. But what I didn't see in physical culture was more than made up for by the wonderful people I met, something I would not have been able to do on a regular tourist jaunt. China's people, if the ones I met are any indication, are its real treasure.

And that reverence for the past still produces some astonishing contemporary art, which I found out when Li Liqing took me to the Art and Culture center not far from campus. This was a kind of mini-mall for artists, two stories tall, with small studios/galleries for individual artists. The first floor was mostly jade, furniture, and ceramics (with a pet store and flower shop thrown in for good measure, probably to feed all the koi in the various displays), and the top floor was mostly painters and calligraphers. Not all the art was Chinese style; there were a number of oil painters doing landscapes in the western style as well.

CalligraphyTools I'd been asking around at dinner to see if anyone knew where to buy calligraphy supplies, like ink sticks and ink grinding stones. It turned out that Li Liqing's niece was taking calligraphy lessons from a woman named Teacher Tang. She very kindly sold me some beautiful, handmade paper (100 large sheets for about $30!). Teacher Tang doesn't speak English but understood it well enough to realize that I recognized good paper and knew a little bit about calligraphy and the tools. Enthusiasm translates easily and she could tell I loved the paper. Teacher Tang then walked me over to another store where they sold me a quite nice ink stone with cranes carved on the lid and three ink sticks, all for about $45.

The ink sticks are works of art in themselves, and the largest one, which cost me about $10 (the smaller ones were about $1.50), has the most beautiful pine fragrance. Teacher Tang walked me through the grinding process and showed me how to hold the brush and very kindly offered to tutor me via the Chinese IM I may take her up on it; or if I go back next year, just sign up for lessons while I'm there.

Li Liqing and I walked around the rest of the mall a little bit before we had to rush back to classes. The standout for me was a man doing ink paintings of wild horses. The brush strokes were extremely economical in the way Chinese ink paintings are, but I've never seen anything look as lively as his work did. I have a weakness for Chinese and Japanese horses anyway, and these left me gasping. I never got a chance to price them, but I suspect they were waaaaaay out of my league. Maybe next year.

Just before we came home, I asked Li Liqing to take me back to the calligraphy shop because I wasn't sure I could find it again, and because I needed an interpreter. Jan came along for the ride too, and we wandered around the showroom a bit more and bought some jade. We went back to Teacher Tang, and discovered Li Liqing's niece having a lesson. She's eight and was shy and stubbornly refused to "perform" (not that I blame her a bit. She did say hello in English though and went right back to her work.

NiHao I'd decided to buy a piece of calligraphy and watched a demo by one man whose style is that interesting messy freehand but his attitude turned me off. Most of the other stores were closed for the day (it was late on Friday) so we ended up back at Teacher Tang's where Li Liqing's niece had made a little piece of calligraphy for both Jan and I that said "Ni Hao" (hello), which Teacher Tang stamped with her own chop.(It's still wrinkly because I didn't have it dry mounted.)

It turns out Teacher Tang's father, who is now 80, is one of the top three calligraphers in Harbin and has collectors all over the world. She was happy to bring some of it out and show me. The first piece, translated roughly, said "books are treasure mountains" which could not have been more perfect for me. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement and made it clear that that was the one I wanted. It's beautiful calligraphy, crisp without being stiff, done on gold-speckled paper. (It's off for framing, or I'd post a picture.) I was so excited and pleased that Teacher Tang started to tear up and knocked 200 yuan off the price. Li Liqing kept saying that Teacher Tang was so touched by how much I appreciated Chinese culture, which is something I've heard again and again, whenever I expressed any interest in any aspect of Chinese art or history. Teacher Tang and I hugged each other and professed our respect and admiration for each other and I went off to dinner with Li Liqing.

Scroll-Marcy's That's where things got really amazing. I had my loot with me in a lovely green box and Jan and I were talking to the rest of Class D about our art purchases when Lin Tao (thanks to Jan for reminding me of his name) asked to see it. I pulled it out and he looked a little critical, asked what I paid for it (not considered rude in China) and then said he thought I paid too much (which is a pretty common conclusion, I suspect, when Westerners buy stuff in China). My response was that it didn't matter what it was actually worth because I loved it. That led to a longish discussion about the value of art and beautiful things and then art in general. At some point in that discussion, Lin Tao says, "I had no idea you had such respect for Chinese culture. I have something you should have." And he leaves the restaurant, goes home, and comes back about 20 minutes later with a six-foot long scroll of yellow silk, with a beautiful painting of chrysanthemums and bamboo and rock mounted on it. Lin Tao's uncle had done it and insisted that I should have it. Here's Marcy's pic of me all choked up, accepting my marvelous gift from Lin Tao, who's opposite me (that's Chang Juntao holding the top).

That's one of the top ten presents I've ever been given, from someone who was nearly a stranger. And that's pretty representative of the graciousness and kindness of the people I met, from new freshmen, to professors, administrators and people on the streets of Harbin. Damn, I'm choking up now, just thinking about it.

About a dozen people turned out on Thursday to see us off at 6 AM and Shuai Yong shepherded Elliott and I to the gate with several other HIT faculty members. We were asked to autograph four shirts for them, which I thought was hilarious, and given a CD with copies of the pics all the HIT faculty took when we were together. This was the note Shuai Yong attached to it:

Time flies.
I hope it gave the beautiful recollection to you in Harbin city.
I wish the past 3 weeks is just the beginning of our friendship. I miss those days very much. If God can give me another chance, I will say 3 words to everyone-I love you. If you have to give a time limit to this love, I hope it is 10 thousand years.
Let's keep in touch.

I would like to go back again, just to see the friends I made there, if I can't see more of the country. I would like to go back again in 10 years, in 20 years, and see what China has become. We can learn so much from each other about living and how to do things. I hope the Chinese government gets the hell out of the way of its own people. China will be a truly great nation then.

Continue reading "one last story" »

trainspotting in China

ChinaMoiBridge Hey, sorry for the radio silence over the last week. Once classes were out, it was, if anything, far crazier than it was while classes were on. Most of this post got written while sitting either in the airport or on the plane on the way home, and there's still more to come, when I have a brain again.

I should mention that the cooking classes went great and seemed to be a big hit. Marcy took in various take-out menus beforehand to see what looked unfamiliar, and we cooked some of it for them: quiche, risotto, potato salad, coleslaw, French toast (the pancakes didn't quite work because we had a hellaciously hot hotplate and no flat pans), salsa and chips. Her classes practiced ordering and tipping and making change with our American and Canadian money. You never think that's something you need to worry about until you've got a pocket full of Mao and other mysterious currency that looks like play money. And the Chinese do not expect tips for service. Of any kind.

On Friday of last week, we had the speech contest and the graduation/closing ceremony and went out to dinner (as usual) with a bunch of the faculty. I know I've said this before but it bears repeating: I have never been treated so well in a foreign country as I have been in China. We've had a certain advantage in that we're able to meet people easily through the program, but even people on the street, the trains, everywhere, are extraordinarily kind and hospitable. We haven't paid for anything when we've been taken out, and even when we've asked people to take us places they won't let us pay for taxis. They go out of their way to be helpful and kind. Hospitality is deeply important in this country.

OrangeThingies The only exception to this rule was the trip we took to Wudalianchi on Saturday and Sunday. We asked Fanlin and Chen Hui to come with us and paid for their train fare and accommodations, though they made all the arrangements for us, so it seemed only fair. Boy, was that an Adventure™! Up at 6 am to catch the 8:40 am train for a six hour journey. We took cabs to the station and then rendezvoused on the steps. While we were head-counting, a group of women came up and stood right behind us, just watching us curiously. And when I say right behind us, I mean practically kissing distance, which was my first real experience of the much smaller Chinese sense of personal space. In America it would be an intimidation tactic. Here, it was just curiosity. We said hello, they smiled and asked where we were from and had a good laugh when Jan insisted that everyone was American but her (Jan's from Winnipeg). Their little boy very shyly said hello in English. And then they asked if we could take their picture with us. They don't care if they don't have copies; they seem to just want a record somewhere that they've met foreigners. This sort of surprised me as there seem to be a lot of Russians around Harbin. I would have thought they'd be more used to them, but apparently not. I suspect the Russians don't show up at the train station much, but fly in and out. And on the street outside the station a woman was selling these orange thingies that look like squash. Inside are large bright red seeds that you eat. Marcy bought one to share on the train.

So the dash for the train was a National Geographic Moment in a vast sea of humanity in a train station somewhat smaller than Penn station, but not much. Even on Thanksgiving, Penn Station isn't, somehow, crowded like this was. Again, I think it's the sense of personal space and the idea that jostling for your place in line isn't impolite, it's just what one does. But we made it on okay, and stashed our stuff and squashed into the seats, all ten of us, six on one side of the aisle, four on the other at the end of the car.

TrainPlatform There are apparently three types of trains in China and they're color coded. The red are the newest, some of them double deckers and sleepers, which come in hard and soft varieties (which apparently really means you have a choice of having 3 roommates or 5); the blue are next youngest and a little faster; and the green are the oldest and slowest, the milk trains, basically. Guess which one we rode on? They remind me of the older trains I rode in England in the 80s, but with far harder and more uncomfortable seats. Food service comes around in little carts somewhat smaller than the ones on the airlines, full of packaged food, hot soup (which seems slightly insane on a rocking train) and various drinks. At each station, similar but larger carts roam the platforms and you call them over from the train window. There's no AC, but there are oscillating fans on the roof of the car and all the windows open. Hey, what more do you want?

Wudalianchi is north of Harbin, up toward the Russian border, and the countryside between there and Harbin is just about pancake flat with large fields of corn, soybeans and occasionally rice. Peter Heller describes the scenery in China as "a peasant, a field, a road, a village; a peasant, a field, a road, a village" ad infinitum, and that's not far from true. In our case it was more like a field, a goat, a peasant, a village, a station, with the occasional river and fishermen thrown in. the farmhouses here are low and long, like shotgun houses, holding multi-generational families (one of the faculty here at HIT is from a farming family; they decided to educate her because she was small and not much use on the farm; she's really brilliant, but apparently her sister is even smarter, and still farming). And farm work, no matter where you're doing it, is farm work, so you see the usual things like tractors, combines (though these are smaller than what you see in the US), goats, ducks, donkeys and cows. The latitude means the forest, such as it is, is partially birch trees, partially pine, but it's not in any way wild like our forests. The trees are trimmed and the ground beneath free of brush and scrub. There is no waste land in China. Every inch is cultivated with something, whether tree farm or kitchen garden. Even the long acres beside the tracks are munched on by cows or goats or planted with kitchen gardens that include lots of sunflowers. Occasionally under the trees are what looked like gravestones.

TrackFlowers The villages have smaller houses and the medium-sized towns also have somewhat shabby looking apartment blocks. But everyone still has a kitchen garden, including the apartment blocks. Sunflowers, pole beans, clematis, cabbages were all easily identifiable. Oddly enough, I didn't see tomato plants, but I may just not have looked closely enough. The tomatoes here really are a fruit and they're treated like one. There's a lot of sugar in the varieties grown here and they appear at breakfast regularly, as they do in England, but not as a savory dish. The juice mixes with tomato in them are sweet, not savory too. And there are flowers planted everywhere along the tracks, flowers along fences, flowers along the roads, mostly cosmas and black-eyed susans.

All the stations are neat and tidy, painted white with red roofs and trim, and each one had a different animal sculpture in the courtyard.  At one station, we were leafleted not once but twice by Jehovah's Witnesses: once from the platfrom by a young woman, once from the train itself by a bent-backed old woman. They were immediately recognizable to me from the graphics and totally cracked me up. And inside the train, well, let's just say it's crowded. People both stand and sit, and if you haven't reserved a seat, good luck to you. Even if you have reserved a seat, don't leave it or it'll be occupied when you get back, unless you leave a bag in it, and maybe even then. Since we were mostly sitting together (one seat was two rows up, but we lost that one pretty early), this wasn't much of a problem. Fanlin and Maurice took turns standing near us and we shifted around a bit to give everyone a shot at the window, out which Jan and I were taking copious pictures--so much so that I killed my battery before we arrived at our destination.

Once we arrived at Beian, Fanlin found our tour bus and off we went for another hour to Wudalianchi. The big attraction in this area is a still-active volcano and a number of springs and lakes. The landscape is still flat and then out of it rise these volcanic cones, the youngest of which La's erupted about 300 years ago. It was arbitrarily decided that we were going to climb it instead of going to our hotel first, which actually turned out to be a good thing, even though we were all tired and hot. Did I mention the trains aren't air-conditioned? No? They're not. Early on, I settled into the "adventure not vacation" mindset and resigned myself to being hot and sweaty and whatever else came along. I can do all that outdoorsy stuff thanks to 18 years of Northern Michigan life that included playing in the woods, fishing, digging worms, swimming in cold lakes, sleeping outdoors, and snowmobile safaris in the dead of winter, but it takes an act of will to get into that mindset. But hey. it was China! It's all good. More or less.

It was at this point, when I had gone into Adventure!™ mode, that I finally had my first intro to the dreaded squatty potty, in which I was sure I'd end up on my ass, squats having never been my strong suit. In a bus station, no less. Remember that bathroom in the early scenes of Trainspotting? "The Worst Toilet in Edinburgh?" The one Ewan McGregor goes surrealistically diving into to retrieve his lost suppository? Okay, not quite that bad, but definitely the culmination of many of my own personal bathroom neuroses, which is probably TMI: a shared M/F entrance with shared sinks but separate facilities; no stall doors; and of course, the whole squatting while keeping one's clothing out of the somewhat awash floor or landing on one's arse. Suffice to say there was a lack of disasters and much relief when it was over. And heroic efforts to hold it for the rest of the weekend. LOL

Lava2 The volcano was fantastic. The landscape around it is covered with what I think is called pillow lava, which looks like it's just blooped up where it is or rolled slowly downhill in a molten stream and set hard like big marshmallows, cracking as it cooled. Closer to the cone, it's sharper and rockier and there are acres and acres of stony lunar landscape. Lichen is just beginning to get a foothold and there is the occasional sapling growing up in the gaps, and here and there stands of wild thyme and sprigs of grass. Though the pumice is relatively soft as rocks go, it's still going to take thousands of years to break this down into soil. And yet it's started to do just that on one side of the cone, which is heavily forested. The side facing the prevailing winds though is almost bare in comparison. We walked up the forest side, on a well-defined stone trail or boardwalk and a bazillion flights of stairs, in the late afternoon sun. Who knew that the trek up 15 flights to my room in Harbin was going to be training for climbing 1,800 feet of mountain? Well, more like 1,500 in my case. I hit the lower rim of the cone and decided I'd been macho enough for the day and let the rest of my cohort trek up the extra 300 feet to the upper rim.

I stopped to rest a couple of places along the way and got amazing amounts of encouragement from complete strangers. It felt like running the marathon, with people cheering on the sidelines. I chatted with a few people who spoke English and cracked jokes with Peter about the march up Mt. Doom. "Are we there yet, Mr. Frodo?" "No, Sam, not yet. We must keep on." Unfortunately,it turned out we were holding everyone else up and the way down was hell's own staircase, very uneven and without handrails, especially in bifocals and in a hurry. My legs were trembling with fatigue by the time I hit the bottom. I had visions of a nice cool hotel room, a shower, and dinner, but that was not to be.

Our next stop was the volcanic lake. We arrived just around sunset and it was indeed very beautiful. My camera was already dead by then, so you'll have to check my Flickr account for photos from Elliott that I asked him to take for me. Lining the road were a number of food and tchotchke shops with more things than you want to imagine, including tiny shrimp and fishies, freshly grilled on sticks. The waterbabies, Marcy and Jan, waded in after Fanlin to let the fish nibble their toes and wound up splashing each other until both were soaking wet. Kids.

Our next stop was, finally, dinner, at a little hole in the wall on a back street, with some less than fantastic food. When you've eaten really incredible Chinese food, it's hard to be forgiving of the less than stellar, which this was. No air conditioning, either. The hotel and the shower was looking better and better.

Wudalianchi has the look and feel of a frontier town and/or a newly sprung up tourist town. The streets are wide and clean and new, planted with flowers and grass along the broad sidewalks and boardwalks that cover the rocky bits. The streelights are fancy and there is neon everywhere. Many of the stores have signs in Russian and many seem to sell tourist tchotchkes. But things still look a bit unfinished and the town is not very densely built up yet. Several new and very nice hotels are under construction. As we were waiting to pull into our hotel parking lot, or one of the hotel's parking lots, fireworks went off, just like at Disneyland.

FleabagRoom But our hotel was not one of the new ones. It was, however, "foreigner approved" by the Heihe Police Station. If Leslie or Rob or Brian are reading this, it reminded me distinctly of the Hotel Iroquois we stayed at on our trip to New York in grad school over Christmas that one year. Fleabag, without the fleas, thankfully. Susan and I shared a room with two rock-hard single beds bearing only a mattress cover and a spread, in a room with no air conditioning. I don't mind fleabag all that much, especially not on an Adventure!™, but there was no way the fuyuan (a word that covers maid, waitress, service person) was gettin' a tip in this one. On the other hand, it was one of the best showers I've had since I hit China and aside from the western commode, more like a Chinese bathroom than we had in the dorm. In the standard Chinese bathroom, pretty much the whole room is the shower stall, with the drain in the floor and no delineation of where you should stand aside from where the shower head is pointed. In this one, the water pressure and temperature were both great, so we got a good shower. The glasses were dirty, but they left us toiletries, including a very generous sliver of soap. And to be fair, we got the cheapo package deal. Even in China, ya get what ya pay for.

Though there wasn't any AC, the room cooled off nicely in the night and Susan and I both had a good sleep thanks to our climb up the mountain, which was a good thing, since reveille was at 6 AM and breakfast, at a different hotel, shortly thereafter. By this time, I was starting to feel a bit queasy for the first time in China, whether from our less than fabulous dinner or from the heat, I'm still not sure, so I picked at breakfast and had some congee (rice porridge) and bread and bought a bottle of water. I think I drank about 4 gallons of water during those two days and sweated 98% of it out.

Spring9 Our first stop on Sunday was the Most Famous Spring, complete with dragon gates. It was hard to tell how new this was as an attraction because the structures were a weird mix of new and old, including a guy with a trained monkey for you to pose with. The gates and walkway were clearly new as was, I think, the pagoda at the end of the walkway. But the springhouse and its complex were clearly older and not well-cared for, with grass growing out of the roof tiles. The spring water contains a lot of CO2 and magnesium so I decided to pass on it, but Peter and Mary and Mike filled their bottles at the taps. Other folks were going away with 3 liter jerry cans, although Maurice told us later that once the water turns cloudy it's not fit to drink.

Spring16 A brook runs out of the spring and stepping stones across it take you to a little falls and the lake it empties into, which is also quite pretty. I was taking a picture across it when a voice behind me said "Can I help you?" in quite good English, and turned around to discover a nice young college student named Tianyao Sun (I'm reversing the Chinese order of names here) there with her family, offering to take my picture. We chatted for a bit and she told me she was from Henan Province and a little about the Shaolin temple that's there, which she said I should see (and I'd like to). She was interested in coming to the US and studying forensics "like on 'CSI'" she said and it was all I could do not to laugh, having just spent a couple of weeks showing episodes of CSI and talking about it. We exchanged emails and I'm going to write her when I get back. Her parents didn't speak any English, but were just, well, sweet, the way the Chinese all seem to be, or at least the ones I've met.

The next stop was a tromp through a nice wetland area that abutted another huge lava field. Marcy and I were both surprised at how familiar the foliage looked, having spent time tramping through the North Woods at various times. Aside from the lava, it was almost disturbingly familiar, but we had a nice walk on another well-maintained boardwalk over interesting landscape and spent some time chatting with each other too. We've got a lot to catch up on and it's really been great to reconnect again. There was a also a little underwater lake along the way too, which Fanlin immediately waded into and splashed himself with.

The final stop was the ice cave, which was refreshing after the heat of tramping around half the day. The descent was a bit scary though: more stone steps, these a little slippery, and no handrails. The cave didn't have any spectacular stalactites or -mites, but had a lot of hoarfrost on the roof and there was still geological research going on in it in a roped-off area.

Back to the hotel for a quick lunch, most of which I skipped this time because I was really starting to feel queasy and then back to the train station for the trip home.

We weren't all seated together this time, which actually made the trip home more interesting in many ways. Somehow Chen Hui and I ended up with the two tickets in the other car and I forged ahead looking for my seat. On Chinese trains, your seat is taken until you get there and prove you've got a ticket for it, so mine was occupied when I arrived. It's moments like this where it really sucks to be both illiterate and unable to speak the language. But once again, depending on the kindness of strangers turned out to not be a stupid strategy. I looked a little lost, showed my ticket to the woman in one of the seats who held out her hand for it and she shooed out the person who was occupying my seat, and put my bag in the rack, too. And no one seemed the least bit resentful. On the contrary, everyone seemed friendly and curious and I wanted really badly to be able to talk to them, Dammit. I'm going to have to learn at some rudimentary Chinese. I'd settled in with a book when Chen Hui appeared and said he was trading for some tickets in the other car. He eventually came back with them and we settled back with the gang a couple of rows away on opposites sides of the aisle. Chen Hui and I had a great conversation for most of the ride back, talking about science fiction movies, vampires, myth, and computer graphics. I told him about TED talks and promised to send him a copy of "Blade Runner," which he hasn't seen, and which I don't think he can download anywhere.

And our talk was punctuated with questions about both of us from our fellow riders. One woman who looked like she was probably a farm woman, asked how old I was; she turned out to be two years old than me, but looked more like five. She had a very sunny and curious disposition though and laughed a lot. I liked her immediately. She and her husband got off about halfway through our trip. Across the aisle with Maurice was a younger couple who watched our conversation like it was a spectator sport. He had the darkest, most intense eyes I've ever seen and it was a little uncomfortable to be watched by him, but there was nothing malicious about it. His wife was very beautiful too, and carefully made up, unlike the rest of us on the train.

About three quarters of the way through the trip, some poor woman sat herself on the floor in obvious distress and ended up being moved into a seat. It looked to me like she was in a lot of pain, maybe having a heart attack. Half a dozen people offered her phials of some kind of Chinese medicine or other, each of them different, and a younger man who I don't think was related to her, lifted her off the floor and got her a seat by the window, then went to call the conductor. I think a number of other people felt faint on the train, though it didn't seem that hot. The roof of each car has a number of oscillating fans like the old subway cars from the 40s did, and they move the air pretty well. The one near the woman's row wasn't working though. When the conductor arrived, he reached up and smacked it hard and it started working again, which cracked both Chen Hui and I up.

And the final lap of the Adventure!™ was taking the city bus from the station to the campus. It was pretty much impossible to get a taxi, so we waited for the number 11, which goes right by the front gate. Harbin buses don't run all night and no one was sure whether this was the last one or not, so when it arrived, the crowd rushed it like it was the last chopper out of Saigon. Jan got caught in the crush and was ready to push her way on, but there was no way in hell I was getting into that. So we waited a bit and pushed our way to the back then did the sardine act for about 10 minutes before getting off. You don't ring for a stop on a Harbin bus. They make every stop along the way and you get off wherever you like. And the cost? One yuan; about 16 cents. This one even had announcements in English.

All in all, it was a fun if somewhat grueling weekend. I'm really glad we went because I've always wanted to see a volcano and it was a truly great trip with Fanlin and Chen Hui. But never had a dorm room looked so good. . .

mahjong, mahjong and other food-related news

ChinaMoiLotus (Just realized I hadn't posted this yet).

So yesterday, Mike, Mary, Peter and I were taken across campus to learn how to play mahjong, something I've been wanting to learn for years. It's a complex game and a fast moving one, a little like poker, a little like dominoes and absolutely killer in terms of competitiveness and addiction. We got a quick summary of the rules and played several rounds with our teachers looking over our shoulders and coaching us. By the third round, I was getting the patterns but was still hampered by the fact that I don't know know the Chinese numerals—which is my own damn fault since I have a watch that counts the seconds digitally in Chinese. I happened to have a truly excellent teacher who was quick as lightning at snapping up the tiles we needed to complete our series (two of a kind, three of a kind, or ascending sets of three, one set or pair including either a one or nine), though I'm happy to say by the last round I was only a little behind him in recognizing them—except for the numeral suit. Since Elliott went out today to buy both Marcy and me Mahjong sets, I've made an investment in this (to the tune of less than $20, granted, but still an investment; I still have to haul it home and the things are heavy!), so I need to get cracking.

The best part was not only did we have a great time, but we had a lot of cultural exchange, which is the whole point of this exercise. Our teachers learned some new phrases ("keep the change," "drinks are on me" "winning streak"), and we learned a new game. As usually happens when you're having fun, people opened up, too, and I think we got to know one another a little better. It was a genuinely fun afternoon, with some genuine camaraderie.

Afterwards, we were taken for Korean hot pot to what was supposedly a "cheap student restaurant." Their cheap student restaurants look a heck of a lot different from the ones I've eaten in in the States. My grad school pals will remember (fondly, I'm sure) El Azteco in East Lansing, whose ceiling was regularly falling in, or "Eat and Puke" in Pittsburgh (also known as Eat and Park, a local 24-hour chain). Almost every restaurant we've been in here seems to have a number of private rooms for families or groups, and this was no exception.  The hotpot was interesting, though not my favorite meal by a long shot. We had beef, mutton, fish and shrimp to go in it, all cooked at the table, along with kelp (which is not my favorite seaweed), and a variety of mushrooms and vegetables. It's odd to see lettuce cooked. Probably as odd as it is for the Chinese to see us eat raw cabbage in coleslaw. But more on that later. The dipping sauce, coincidentally, was also called mahjong, pronounced exactly the same way as the game, with the same tones and everything. It's a sesame paste not at all like tahini, into which you mix a variety of condiments. I'm not fond of Chinese sesame paste either, so this wasn't my favorite meal, but it was fun and interesting too.

Afterwards, we headed back down the middle of the completely dug-up street where the restaurant was, something you'd never be allowed to do in the US. It was cool, in a weird way that I can't really explain. We were hurrying to beat a spectacular storm that was coming, with some serious lightning and thunder. We just made it, though I think our poor guide got soaked on the way home, especially since he wouldn't take an umbrella from one of us.

We were also rushing to get to our weekly staff meeting (such as it is) so Marcy and I could start cooking for her class. She's doing a class on ordering in restaurants and wanted food (the reason for our trip to the Metro Store on Saturday). We commandeered two hotplates and used her toaster oven, and ended up making tomato risotto, salsa (with packaged tortilla chips), mac and cheese, brownies, coleslaw, and potato salad. In the morning, I went up to fry up bacon (giving myself a couple of second degree spatter burns in the process since the bacon was packed in water--thanks, Hormel), and failed miserably at making pancakes because the pans weren't really flat, the heat was too high, and they stuck to the pan. I tried out my new cleaver, which is not a fantastic one, since it's stainless steel, but which did the job. We both felt a little like we were on Iron Chef after a while, but the two classes today went great and were very popular. Next year, it would be fun to plan the menu a little farther ahead of time and bring some ingredients and implements. It reminded me just a little too much of trying to cook in my Brooklyn apartment with no counter space: we wound up cooking in the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen all at once with various hotplates and such. My hands still smell like onion.

Around noon, my previous night's dinner decided it had spent enough time brewing in my digestion and wanted out. NOW. I think this is a little bug going around, rather than the food though. Jan has been stricken since Saturday, and I've been absolutely fine up until now. I don't see how anything really dangerous could have survived boiling in that hotpot, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't the food. So I actually had to abandon Peter with the undergraduate Scrabble game today and come home. I've had a coke and the equivalent of some ramen, but Jan left me some of her Chinese herbal medicine tea and capsules and those are on the menu tonight too.

I also have a mosquito in my room who's decided I'm rather tasty, the little bastard. He's taken a nip at my ear, my knee, and between my pinkie and ring finger (!). Add this to the gigantic zits I've suddenly acquired (which my Chinese zit medicine is doing a great job of taking caring of, and I'm kind of a sorry mess right now.

But hey, I'm in CHINA! And I know how to play mahjong now!


ChinaMoiLotus  As I've said earlier, Harbin is filled with construction in China's new, booming economy, which seems not much slowed by the rest of the world's economic woes. HIT is gearing up for it's 90th anniversary next year and many of the buildings are getting new facades and staircases, or being gutted and remodeled. Several new ones are going up as well. Yesterday, the main gate to the campus was closed off and the sign facing the road has been demolished. The square looks like it's going to get new paving. I think by this time next year it will be a sparkling new campus.
The rest of the city is keeping up too. New structures covered in scaffolding and green tarps are everywhere. The city is also building a new subway that will have about a dozen stations. As a result, roads are closed everywhere, making traffic even more nightmarish than it might be in a quickly growing city like this. Case in point: A couple of our students took Marcy and I to a store called Metro across town. It's not that far away, but it took us quite a long time to get there because we got stuck in what I'll politely call a traffic jam but what was more like a small clusterfuck. These seem to happen fairly often here, especially on the smaller side roads. Part of it is the narrowness of side roads and part of it is the driving habits of the citizens. That double line down the middle of the road that means traffic on the other side goes in the opposite direction and you shouldn't cross it except to turn left? Just a suggestion. Somebody in front of you turning left while you want to turn right? Pass them on the left, if necessary, even if it's several cars. Street blocked? Try the sidewalk and let the pedestrians look out for themselves. Stoplights? Only at truly major intersections. Right of way? Who's got the fastest car? And yet, there are precious few accidents because while Harbin drivers are aggressive and unruly, they are, in a strange way, polite and cautious. When driving anywhere is a constant game of chicken, a little eye contact goes a long way. That bus will barrel down the road at you, but if it comes right down to inches and feet, it'll slow to let you in, or stop to keep from running you over, if you're on foot. And most people don't drive that fast, except on the straightaways. Even bicycles ride the expressway. People sit under the overpass on the side of the road and play board games.

TaxiDriver As we were looking for a taxi this morning, a woman on a scooter with her young son on the back was nearly sideswiped by a minivan, mostly because she wasn't really paying attention and had decided to do a U-turn in the middle of the street. The van barely brushed her, then stopped, saw she was all right, and went on. It could have been so much worse because neither of the scooter riders were wearing helmets. No one seems to here. That was just an omen of things to come. Before the clusterfuck traffic jam, our taxi driver took us through more muddy back streets than I guessed existed in Harbin, which was great because you get to see bits of peoples lives that you wouldn't, otherwise. As we were waiting to see how we'd get out of our jam, our driver got out of the car to take a look and we found ourselves opposite a little courtyard workshop and a stepped sidewalk. After a few moments, a minivan wheeled around us, up the steps and down the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians, into the main road. A couple of minutes later, a motorcycle came by going the opposite way, right beside a pedestrian. Behind us, our driver pointed out, was a long, black wedding limo, with a cascade of flowers on the hood.Wedding-Limo
It cleared up after about ten minutes, just after Marcy described how this situation would be resolved in America, with the cops coming to direct traffic. Sure enough, someone was directing traffic, but it was someone who'd gotten sick of waiting and gotten out of his car to do it. And unlike New York, there was little horn-honking and lots of patience. I think the drivers here are not so much aggressive as self-assured and cooperative. It's a chaotic system in the sense that it has an unseen order. And we didn't even pay for the time we'd lost sitting in traffic, just the distance we'd traveled.

Sea-cucumber So, we arrived at the Metro store, which is like Costco or Sam's Club in size: acres of warehouse holding imported western food (what we were there for, so Marcy could show her class what some of the things on the menus were), clothing, kitchen implements and appliances, produce and meat, cleaning supplies, toiletries, you name it. We managed somehow to blow 870rmb between us, and hauled it home in a couple of huge reusable grocery bags, one of which I'm bringing home with me. We'll start cooking tomorrow night: coleslaw, potato salad, grilled cheese, risotto, BLTs, brownies, maybe a quiche, and pancakes. Rob, you and Marcy need to have a pie crust bake off some time, if you haven't already. I'm leaving that to her. During our wander through the wonderland of the Metro Store, I ran across packages of spiced donkey meat that I had to take pictures of. Then at lunch, we ended up eating some in dumplings, at a very nice dumpling place next door to the KFC just outside campus. Yes, the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Sheesh. The donkey meat was so finely ground I couldn't really tell the flavor, but it was a little . . . gritty. And no wonder, if they're grinding up those sorry beasts I see pulling carts here. The silk worms still win top place in Weird Things I Have Eaten, I think, though I did see dried sea cucumbers, in a presentation box no less. Don't think I'll be trying those.

Mahjong lessons tomorrow. I've been asking around for where to buy ink sticks and ink stones and paper, but no luck so far. One of the faculty has a niece who is learning calligraphy, so she might know. I've decided I'd like to come home with one calligraphy scroll and a nice piece of pottery or china. No idea what to get for friends. This isn't a tourist kind of town much, but I think I'll have to go down to Central Street and shop a bit.

Oh, and the apartment blocks I've been saying look so shabby on the outside? Marcy was in one recently and they're apparently quite nice, all modernized and immaculate. Tenement-like on the outside, high tech on the inside. So much for appearances.

going to the garden to eat silk worms

ChinaMoiBridge  Sorry for the delay in posting. It's been a pretty busy yet uneventful week, filled mostly with teaching and going to dinner with the faculty, who are all darlings. But every moment seems to be occupied either with teaching, planning lessons, or socializing with students and faculty (who are also students), so we don't have much time alone, and very little to get out and explore. I thought we would have some time today after the undergraduates performed several skits for us this morning then "let us go" for the day at 10:30, but it's either been thunderstorming, or drizzling all day. Not a good day for pics, though that's what I planned to do. I think that will have to wait until tomorrow or Sunday, or perhaps a little later in the week.

It's hard to believe I've been here more than two weeks already and there's only a week and half or so left. This is so unlike any other trip abroad I've taken that I'm not sure how to process it. There's a fair amount of frustration attached to it because my time is not my own, but I'm also grateful for the opportunity to be here. Chances are, I would not have come to China any other way, and I'm glad I did. Nor would I have had the opportunity to meet the number of people I have met here, and talk with them about their country, share their food and get glimpses into their lives.

Actually, now that I think about it, it wasn't an entirely uneventful week. Sunday night we got taken out to karaoke and dinner afterwards at a fantastic Korean restaurant. The karaoke was fun and is very popular in China. More so than in the US, I think. The faculty group who took us were completely uninhibited about getting up and singing, and most had beautiful voices. The word was already out that I could sing, so there was no squirming out of it. Most of the stuff we did, when it wasn't (shudder) John Denver, was old rock and roll or soul: "Superstition," "Proud Mary," "ABC," "First Cut is the Deepest" (although that was the Sheryl Crow version), etc. most of which are perfect for my range (except for ABC). Word also got out afterwards that we'd had a good time, and some of our other teachers got dragged off to karaoke again on a field trip later in the week. These folks really know how to enjoy themselves. Most of the songs they sang were love ballads, but about finding true love, where most of ours are sad or angry songs about losing it. Hmmmm, what up with that? Maybe that's more indicative of the time period the songs we were singing came out of than anything else. But I wonder.

The Korean food surprised me in not being so hot that it set my mouth on fire. And it was truly delicious. The place we were taken to is very popular, and huge: several stories tall with a number of private dining rooms, some of which have tatami in them. Ours didn't thankfully. I'm too damn old to be sittin' on the floor for dinner anymore.

On Monday, I took the field trip shift with Elliott, since Susan had bunged up her ankle and had a little adventure in the Chinese clinic (where there were no wheelchairs so she was piggybacked in on the back of one of our hosts; have I said how kind these people are?) the night before. It was a kind of crappy day so we suggested the museum as our destination. I want to go back there because we only saw a little since it closed at 3:30. There were displays from every dynasty and I got a crash course in Chinese history while looking at the artifacts. You go back far enough and all the artifacts look the same: a Bronze Age arrowhead is a Bronze Age arrowhead. We were hustled through by Mr. Miao, but it was very enjoyable anyway, though it's a small museum. There are several plans for a much larger and more modern one, since the current museum is housed in what used to be a Russian Bazaar, an historical building preserved the city's early history.

On Monday, we also had a power outage right after we all trooped off to class. Someone at a construction site cut a cable and a fairly big chunk of the HIT area near our dorm was out for most of the day. I climbed up 14 flights of stairs, not once but twice, five flights at a time. The bottom two floors were pitch black, which just boggled me. Where the hell are the emergency lights? There are so many building practices here that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen in the US, which makes me think maybe those suits are not always such a bad thing, if they result in putting emergency lights in stairwells so people don't fall and break their necks in the dark. I was trying to use my cell phone for a little light, then some how got distracted when Peter hit his head, and put it down on a windowsill and forgot to pick it up. Didn't notice or think about it until later because I was talking to Peter and being amazed with myself for walking up 14 flights of stairs. By that time, it was gone. I'm glad it was mine, though, and not borrowed from one of the other faculty here. I'd have felt terrible. Cell phones are bikes are hot commodities here.

Tuesday, Wednesday Thursday were pretty ordinary: teach, eat, work on lessons, crash. But the weather has changed from the first week. It's been pretty hot, in the mid to upper 80's with 70% humidity or thereabouts, and we've been teaching in un-air-conditioned classrooms. I go through about a half a liter of water in three hours. The mornings start out sunny and beautiful, and relatively cool and then in the afternoon it turns grey and stormy. We've gotten at least one good shower a day, and a couple of corking storms, like we had today. It's also changed the air quality for the worse. I hadn't been taking any Claritan for the first week I was here, but I definitely need it now. And the inside of my nose is black.

I've been reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which is a really fascinating look at China by a guy who has been in Beijing for years, as a correspondent for the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times. I ran across a couple of very descriptive paragraphs today that apply as much to Harbin as they do to Shenzhen, "The Overnight City" that he's writing about here:

The urban landscape was marked by the type of premature aging that was characteristic of Chinese boomtowns. New sidewalks were already overrun by patches of weeds, and unfinished apartment blocks had been so cheaply constructed that their walls immediately became stained and cracked. Almost nothing was finished, and everything was of such low quality that it immediately looked old.

This is true of much of the construction in Harbin, too. The apartment blocks are finished in concrete and most of it looks like it needs a good sandblasting and refinishing, or at least a good paint job. The windowframes are rusted and most of the construction seems slapdash. It makes the city look poorer than it is and there's a vast contrast to the new buildings that are going up, which are architecturally quite beautiful and modern. I think I described earlier how the interior finishing is like old New York walk-ups and tenements, even in new buildings. My room has an individual water heater suspended over the toilet. The water pipes, even the hot ones, run outside the walls. There's one electrical socket into which a surge protector is plugged in, then mounted on the wall. That's where the water heater and the washing machine plug in, as well as anything else you might want to plug in. And it's way over my head, even standing on the toilet.

For all that, the streets are beautiful, because they are so incredibly green. There are trees everywhere, mostly weeping willows, making even the narrow streets shady and beautiful in the summer. Little stores line most of the street level. Most of them seem very dark inside and remind me of the corner store I used to go to when I was a kid: Ron used call his store "The Biggest Little Store in the World," and it was. The stores in Harbin along the smaller side streets are just like that.

Today, the undergraduates, who have no money, put on a series of skits for their teachers, which were absolutely hilarious. They've been working on them for the past two days and they were full of singing and dancing and slapstick, and absurdity. My favorite was called "Love and Stinky Feet," about a young man from a region where everyone has fragrant feet. One day a beautiful witch who has the stinkiest feet the world exchanges their feet while he's asleep and he's driven out of his village. The crows can't stand his smelly feet; the flowers can't stand his smelly feet, even the local monsters can't stand his smelly feet. He wanders the countryside disconsolate until he comes to a kingdom where the king and queen's daughter can't sleep, no matter what they try: sleeping pills, counting sheep, hypnotism, magic. But the moment he sticks his foot in the Princess's face, she falls asleep and he gets to marry her. My face hurt from laughing.

We were free for the day at about 10:30 so I headed back to the dorm to drop some stuff off and check my email and let a colleague use my internet since Microsoft's Vista OS (useless piece of crap) keeps them from connecting through the University. By the time Mary was done, it had started to rain. And not just rain, but pour, with thunder and lightning. So I had some lunch, watched the rain with my neighbors, and got some photos posted. I realized it had cleared up when I heard someone down on the street hawking something very melodiously. I think it was a water seller on a trike, but I couldn't see because of all the trees. Usually they're just loud and obnoxious, but this one was practically singing, and in a beautiful voice. Then I went out for about an hour and found my way through the streets outside HIT's back gate, and got a clearer picture in my head of the layout. I'm still not sure what street we're on as far as the map goes, but I can find my way out and around a lot better now. I think I probably know an area about the size of my neighborhood now, from White Plains Road to Castle Hill Road, Tremont to Westchester Rd.

View Larger Map

But I've teased you enough about the silk worms by now. Lest you think my title is a come-on, I really did eat silk worms tonight, and yes, I knew what they were when I ate them. There's really not much mistaking them. They're about the size of my thumb and the segmentations are clearly visible. I'm not sure how they were prepared, other than cut in half longitudinally, but I suspect frying of some kind. They're black when they're done this way and a little crunchy, and kind of nutty flavored. It's actually the pupae (from inside the unraveled cocoon) that's served, not the worms and these had had any of the adult body parts removed. What's left is a sort of tofu-like paste that fries up crispy. The texture is a bit like stuffed clams. They reminded both Peter and I of something else (no, not chicken!) that we couldn't put our fingers on. I ate about 6 of them. And though I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of them, they were not offensive at all. Not like that pig skin from last week. These had a nice texture and mild flavor. They're full of protein and very nutritious. That tops the list of Weird Things I Have Eaten. Do I get a prize?

Americans' favorite passtime

ChinaMoiLotus  Success with the washing machine! Yay! Clean clothes! Halfway through the day yesterday we trotted off campus to a French store called Carrefours (sp?) and to a couple of the underground shopping malls (much like Toronto's) in and around Hongbo Square. Marcy and I did a little clothes shopping though that is largely (pun intended) hopeless for women of our size, me especially. I'm the right height for Chinese clothing, but the width? Not so much. I did, however, find a great pair of cargo shorts (men's) and successfully bargained for them. Saved myself a whopping 20 yuan ($3.50). Like many places where our currency is worth so much more than the local currency, it seems absurd to bargain when you're already paying so little, in this case $13, but the sales people expect it. The trick is knowing which places you can and can't bargain in and that's hard to know unless you start doing it. For instance, we also bought some Chinese pop and folk music CDs (Rob, I got one for you strictly on the basis of the album title: "Dick and Cowboy," with a handsome, long-haired Chinese guy on the cover). We couldn't bargain for those, but the two I bought were double albums (and Dick and Cowboy is a music video disc as well) and both were a total of 27 yuan (about $5.00).  My big purchase of the day was a mattress pad for my very hard mattress, and that cost me a whopping Y229 ($38). I'm not just making money by coming here, I'm actually saving it.

Next door to the Carrefours store was a big building with the words "Ming Tien Coffee Language" in the same color and font as Starbucks, and we were desperately hoping it might be such, but suspect it's a language school instead. Funny what pattern recognition will make you think. It didn't help that next door to that was a round sign similar to the Starbuck's logo, but featuring a German guy with a beer stein and called Good Hans. Sigh.

The weather was beautiful again, sunny and warm, but Harbin, like LA, has a very hazy horizon, though the air doesn't feel especially dirty. And again there were people all over the streets, selling fruit, washcloths, books, clothes, water, ice cream, you name it. On the way to the stores, we also passed an old man crouching on the sidewalk behind a small white sheet with a bamboo holder of sticks that I suspect were I Ching. I wish I'd stopped to ask if I could take his picture and that I knew enough Chinese to have him throw them for me. It would have been interesting. We also passed a large statue of Chairman Mao in front of some building. Not sure what the building was except that it wasn't Party HQ. We saw that on another day and this wasn't it.

And here's the picture of the day for Saturday: one of the side streets lined with small shops near HIT.


a breather

ChinaMoiLotus Finally, a moment to catch my breath! I feel like we really hit the ground running when we got here (only because we did), and I finally have a few hours to sit and think and process some ideas and observations—and pictures. I have to do a couple of loads of laundry today, but that's about all. A couple of quick notes: Facebook people, if you want to comment, please go to the blog to do so; I can't reach Facebook here to participate in any discussions. My internet access is through the university (and a proxy program hilariously called Ruijie Supplicant) and Facebook, YouTube, and parts of Typepad have been blocked by the Great Firewall of China since the Uighur riots earlier in the month. I can only write posts and comments at Typepad, but I can't actually see my own blogs.

In that vein, Carol asked me over on Facebook (which I saw through my email, which is unaffected) whether I was loving it, and what surprised me the most. Yes, I'm loving it. I love the people here, I love the unfamiliarity, I love trying the new foods (god the fish is good!), I love the experience of being some place that is both completely unlike home and yet so like it in many ways. What surprised me? I'm not sure I was really surprised by anything, not because I know anything about China, or because I'm world-weary and jaded but just because I think I try to keep myself open to every new experience without judging or trying to "translate" it. Comparisons with home are inevitable, but I tell my students at home that the things every human being wants and needs are the same: food, clothing, shelter, safety, peace, dignity, love, and respect. Everything else is window dressing, so the fact that no one has a dryer here, though everyone seems to have washers, is an interesting choice, but not necessarily surprising. I'm not sure that I can explain why I'm not surprised. Perhaps because it's all new and all delightful. Even, in a weird way, the smell of sewage and waste. Hell, Paris smelled like that too, and so did the Longwood subway station back home for a long time. As the book says, everybody poops.

And Scott asked me what I said to my student's question about America supporting Tibet's independence. I didn't go into it then because I was a piece of black, burnt toast, not because I was skirting the issue. She said she was shocked to read that Americans supported Tibet's secession bid, and I can understand why. I told her that I thought we supported it for a couple of different reasons, one of which was that we had done the same thing ourselves to form the nation we live in now. The U.S. broke away from its own empire and since then has liked to see itself as a supporter of the right to self-determination. I said that there were always two sides to every issue and that it was always difficult for one nation to acknowledge that a part of it does not feel like it belongs to the whole. I talked about Quebec and the Texan's brief and recent bid for freedom (to which I say, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out), and I should have talked about our own Civil War, but didn't. I also said that there were a number of famous people in the US who practiced Tibetan Buddhism and who were friendly with the Dalai Lama and this kept the issue in the press in the US, as well as giving some celebrities some face time and free publicity for themselves (cynical? Moi?). I talked about the value most Americans place on individual independence and freedom and democracy and that it was our official policy to support that wherever possible. It was the excuse we used in Iraq, though it really had little do do with that, but that we also recognized China's right to define its own borders. The US also has a policy of welcoming and supporting refugees and exiles (the "huddled masses" argument). I also acknowledged that there's no good answer to that question, only politics, history, and national philosophies. I love that they ask hard questions.

I finally feel like I'm getting a geographical picture of the city, or at least the campus, in my head, too. Enough so that I may do a bit of exploring this afternoon. I'm pretty firmly on a Harbin schedule now, and woke up at 7 (ugh), but it was nice to laze in bed a bit and not have to get up immediately. I have a million thoughts I want to get down but they're completely disorganized, so stuff is just going to come out as it occurs to me. And I have lots of pictures, too, so get yourself over to my Flickr set on China. I'm trying to add new stuff every day.

First, the weather report: it's been very pleasant, if rainy, all week. Not a constant rain, either, but we get at least one shower a day, sometimes very hard, some of the streets flood quickly. Next time, I'm bringing Wellies (and it won't rain at all, of course). The temperature is perfect and it's only a little humid, a lot like the weather I loathed leaving in New York. Yesterday it turned positively sunny in the afternoon and I got a bit sunburned. Many of my students were carrying sunbrellas (lacy and very pretty, even the boys) and were a little mystified by why I didn't want one. Chinese girls like to stay pale. I should have put on some sunblock though. I look a little like Rudolf now.

One or all of the faculty have taken us out to dinner or on field trips during the week, so there's not much time for exploring between socializing and work. Next weekend, I think we might be going to one of the coastal cities for a couple of days, sleeping on the train. I anticipate exhaustion, but it'll be worth it to see more of China.

Yesterday, the undergraduates (about 90 of them) organized a field trip for us to Sun Island, also known as the Tai Yang Dao Scenic Spot (at least on my map of Harbin). This was a great icebreaker and I got to know many more of the students and have some great conversations. They're curious about everything: work, salaries, our families, how we care for our parents (a big issue for the Chinese; Shanghai has begun encouraging families to have two children to take some of the burden off the state for the care of the elderly), what we do for fun, what games children and teenagers play, how we feel about Obama and Bush, how we like the food, what we think of China, what's the best university to study X at, is your GPA or your extracurricular activity more important, what kind of families do we have, how many friends we have, what is New York like? Infinite questions.  The nice things is that as I answer their questions, they tell me about their lives too: where they're from, what their home town is like, if they have pets, how often they go home and how far they travel (one student told me it takes him two days and a night to get home on the train—51 hours!). Many of them are fresh out of high school and don't yet have a sense of what their major involves, or what they want to do with it yet. I find this interesting as most American freshman, though they may not have a good grasp of what their major involves, certainly know what they would like to do, and have at least some ambitions of what they'd like to leave behind. If I can generalize from these extremely bright students (the top 2.5 percent of all of China), they seem to want to just hunker down and get a job that pays them well. There's none of the American bravado ("I want to be famous for . . ." or "I want to be the best at . . ." or even "I want to be able to use my skills to do X this reason.") I'm not sure where this comes from, except that perhaps it has something to do with that aphorism (which I know is from Japan but it seems to apply here too) that the nail that sticks up gets pounded down. HIT tends to promote from within its own student body, so I have a feeling at least some of these students will end up being faculty members. I am, of course, making sweeping generalizations from limited observations, so bear that in mind.

Phoenix The park itself is beautiful: huge (9,390 acres; by comparison, Central Park is 843 acres, or 6% of Manhattan), immaculately kept, and with a number of features that American parks probably wouldn't have. There are several "wildlife" features (squirrel enclosure, a swan pond, an enclosure where you can pet and feed the sika deer) including food to offer the koi in the lake; an amusement park with rides (the first double-decker carousel I've ever seen; a little roller-coaster and a tilt-a-whirl) and game booths; a big lake with paddle boats; and several themed spots: flowers, topiary, forest, an artificial falls, an artificial mountain, marshland with boardwalks, replicas of the ice sculptures. The topiary was just boggling: huge and elaborate and incredibly detailed.

Park-deck  The park feels more organized than Central Park in that people keep to the trails and boardwalks rather than running riot on the grass the way we do. Someone asked me about that, in fact, and I explained that we plant very hardy grass that can take a lot of abuse, and that the Parks Department is always reseeding it, too. When we had lunch, we picnicked not on the grass, but on a wooden deck, which was hard on my old bones and my arse, even though the students very thoughtfully brought cushions for us. That's really pathetic on my part. We also played games there, one of which hilarious involved a student and I attempting to bust a balloon between our butts, and another of which involved passing water from cups held in our mouths. Afterwards, a bunch of people played monkey in the middle with a soccer ball and some amazing footwork.

Bridge My two favorite spots were the Harbin-Niigata Friendship Garden and the lake, which Hu Jing and Zhou Yang took me out on in a paddle boat, something I haven't done in years, and the lotus flower pond behind one of the bridges there. I hadn't realized the flowers and pads were so big. The buds are the size of my fist and bigger than my hand when they open, and a beautiful deep pink color. The pads are the size of serving plates or chargers. The flowers stand up quite tall and straight from the water, unlike the small white waterlilies I'm used to seeing in Cedar Lake, which lie on the surface. The Friendship Garden had another beautiful arched bridge and small pond after the Japanese style.

I took 84 pictures, many of which were of me or my students or me and my students. They weren't as adamant about hijacking my camera as the faculty were, but we all took pictures of each other everywhere, which was kinda fun.

We spent about 6 hours at the park and then went out to dinner with the faculty who are enrolled in the summer camps. Phew! They took us to a hotel banquet room and really laid it on, on English faculty member to a table of about 6. Mine had, among others, Mr. Miao, who is a riot, and likes his beer. I got roped into (very willingly) going around and toasting the other tables, which is what one does after one has eaten well. And did we eat well. Another whole fish, which is sturgeon, I think; slices of sausage in the Russian style (including blood sausage, I think); deep fried pork and shrimp in a sweet, gingery sauce (I'm eating the pork left overs right now, thanks to my hosts, who sent the rest home with me); cubed pumpkin coated in sesame seeds, a delicious beef stew with squash and chunks of corn on the cob; a delicious chicken and mushroom stew; sauteed snow pea pods; a vinegary salad of shredded potato and carrots; egg-drop soup with seaweed, and more which I can't remember. The breading on the pork and shrimp is not wheat or rice but potato starch, and thus delicious. Never met a breading I didn't like. Oh, and dumplings, which I was too full to try. We were all stuffed. Can you say food coma? So afterwards we took the 20 oz bottles of Harbin Beer around with our little 3 oz glasses and toasted the other tables. And the custom is to empty your glass after each toast. The beer is 3.2 so it wasn't much of a hardship, but I mostly stuck to water or coke. I don't think I would have had a hard time keeping up though. I did teach my table the word "chugging" too. Ah, cultural exchange. I was enthusiastic enough that Mr. Miao declared I was very Chinese. LOL. There was much shouting, picture-taking, a little singing, lots of laughter, and I told the folks at my table that their faculty meetings were a lot more fun than ours, which is the truth.

It's a little discombobulating to be 12 hours ahead of you all back home. I'm a half day older now and the news doesn't keep up with me.  As it's midday, I'm off to one of the big shopping centers in a little while to see if I can find a mattress pad for my rock-like bed. I just went to the "Meijers" for a bowl, two gallons of water, some footies, a couple bottles of beer, a sponge and some spray cleaner, all of which cost me 73 rmb or a whopping $12.00. Tomorrow, we're off for karaoke (shudder) and dinner, but I want to do a little exploring in the morning before we go. Laundry tonight.

donkey riding

TeacherMoi  Mostly job today, which is what I'm here for after all. Three good classes with some more talk about Newton and asking questions. One of my students went right for the Donkey gold with the first question about why American supports the independence of Tibet. That was a tricky one, but I'm glad she felt comfortable (or bold) enough to ask it. It's so impossible to be the spokesperson for an entire country, a good number of whom you think are bigoted assholes. How do you explain the horror that was George Bush? Or anything else, for that matter, without making sweeping generalizations? Well, you don't, much. I'm looking forward to more conversations on an informal basis when our students take Elliot and Peter and I to another park on Friday. (Why we have to start off at 8 AM, I don't know, but at least we'll be back by 3:30. If I haven't dropped 20 lbs by the time I come back, I'll know for sure that, yes, it really is genetic. LOL)

The weather's been absolutely gorgeous, if a little rainy, but tonight we ate al fresco at a little sidewalk cafe near where we got our pictures taken the other day. There we discovered the donkey carts come around to collect compost and recycling. This one came by for a plate of watermelon rinds before braying like a klaxon as we walked away. So of course I've had Great Big Sea's song Donkey Riding in my head since then.

getting out

ChowDownMoi  Got off the campus today, after a couple of moderately successful classes. The last one, where we talked about Newton, automation, and the British Royal Mint while Newton was in charge of it worked well, especially the second half when I let them ask any questions they wanted, about science or anything else. I tried a different cafeteria on my own for lunch and founds some good fried rice and ran into a guy from Hong Kong who wants me to email him "English Expressions." I smell green card hunter on this one. He's a bit shady. Even the cleaning ladies (fuiyan?) were suspicious of him.

But it's the afternoon that was most interesting. Again, I'm absolutely knackered, and that's because I walked around a lot of Harbin, from the park (name to come later) to the central shopping district and over to the square where Santa Sophia is. The park was gorgeous, with amusement rides as well as carefully tended flower beds and a beautiful pagoda we took shelter under when it started to rain. There were black swans in the river too. I'll have more pictures and more stories, but my camera was also hijacked during the trip, so about half of the pictures were of me and the faculty who graciously took Susan and I around. They are lovely people, but they want pictures of themselves and you on your camera, everywhere, so I didn't get as many as I wanted to, though I did get a couple of goodies. It's hard to take good photos when you're in a group anyway, because they take time to set up and frame.

ChinaBeast of Burden Anyway, Harbin looks far more European than I had expected in many ways, and has earned its moniker of the Oriental Paris. There are many western-style buildings cheek by jowl with the pervasive, dense Chinese architecture in the brutalist style. Parts of it are very sophisticated in all the expected western ways, and then sabotaged by poor and smelly drainage and badly maintained sidewalks, and traffic that make New York look sedate. Other parts of it are National Geographic classics: dense, wet, muddy, crowded with vendors and unfamiliar food. I got a whiff of durian in its native ripe state down one sidestreet though I'd still like to taste it fresh, and not shipped overseas thousands of miles. And this meshes with a question one of my students asked about what makes a developed country and why Americans see China as less devoloped than us. In many ways, it's pretty arrogant to call China an undeveloped or even semi-developed country; their civilization is far older than ours and has experimented with many more types of social organization than we have. We base our development criteria largely on our own bias of consumer culture and a fair sophisiticated (or decadant, take your pick) aesthetic. You can't even say our economy is that much better than theirs now.

My favorite picture of the day is this poor guy peddling his working bike loaded with plastic bottles down one of Harbin's main drags. Oy. There are pedicabs everywhere, along with the working trikes, and on the way back to campus, trotting along the expressway was a donkey cart.  0_o

The culmination of PeeWee's Big Adventure was more dumplings, really great soups, and pig skin. Yes, pig skin. Not footballs or pork rinds, either. This was boiled, pickled, and sliced and had the texture of aspic, and wasn't particularly tasty. Glad I tried it, just to say I have, but it's not a favorite.

We're off to the zoo this Friday, which should be fun. More as I have conscious brain cells to write.

as yet uncharted territory

AstronautMoiI have to keep reminding myself that this isn't a vacation, it's actually work, and that I'll be here for a month. I was hoping to get away and wander around on my own a bit, but then I realized that I really need to figure out what I'm going to be doing with 60 students tomorrow morning from 8:30 to 11:30. The instructors rotate through three sections of about 30 students (it would have been 4 sections of fewer students, but we lost one teacher to a broken ankle the week before we were flying over; she must be devastated), so our schedule looks a bit odd, but it's only 8 classes in total with prep ever couple of days and it looks like we get Fridays off to romp around the city with faculty, and, of course, the weekends. In the afternoons we rotate through another three hours of playing games, showing a movie, field trips and our choice of activities, which will probably be writing or speaking workshops.

I'm very used to teaching writing workshops, so it's taking me a bit of work to turn my thinking around to teaching not just about writing, but about the language itself: expanding vocabulary, working on pronunciation and enunciation, helping them understand the grammar, exploring jargon and idioms, all of these in the context of science communication. I'm usually all about the content, now I need to be all about the media.

Today was the first day of class and I think it went okay, but it's hard to be sure when you're working in another language. The visual cues are similar but even when things aren't working, students here try hard to please their professors. I've gotten some useful feedback from some students but it's usually after class. They're all so polite, and a little shy. More thinking about how to teach them the language . . . We spent a good part of the class talking about the innovations in Star Trek, what geeks are, why Star Trek is so important to American culture and how it meshes with science, and they seemed to like that. I got there from Jennifer's latest article at the Washington Post, which is a fun read too, even though I don't agree with the conclusion about science fiction that she sites.

In the afternoon, I had an interesting discussion with three of the faculty, about life in the US and the details of my life: where I lived, what pets I had, who my family are, what kind of house I had, and more interesting political discussions too, about our relationship with China and Japan and with one professor about building materials and where to find textbooks about them in English. Who knew my stint at AKRF would come in so handy?

Out to dinner with the gang to a dumpling restaurant at the HIT hotel (and how come they're not putting us up there?), where Marcy's awesome language prowess was on display. Walking through the streets was again fascinating. People seem to use their balconies here not as sun rooms but as laundry rooms or storage rooms. I guess when you're in a small space, there's no wasting any of it. Street was full of more vendors selling what looked like fabulous fruit, and a derelict Japanese guy shouting at everybody in general. It's been raining off and on all day and as we came out, one of the streets we walked down was flooded, though it hadn't rained that hard. Elliott made the observation that it was interesting to see an obviously developing economy cheek by jowl with stuff that reminds you it's still developing: like the lack of infrastructure. No one can drink the water here unless it's bottled; the storm drains smell of sewage; and the drainage itself is pretty spotty. People just wade through it. Not being able to drink the tap water is interesting, to say the least. On the floor beneath ours, you can get boiled water from a spigot, and wash in the water just fine. I've been showering and brushing my teeth with it, but rinsing my mouth with bottled water. The construction of even the new buildings is what any US developer would call shoddy: exposed hot water pipes, half of the wiring just strung along the walls, thresholds not sunken into the floor. That said, the rooms were in are perfectly nice, with AC and decent, if cheap, furniture. They're a little smaller than my NYC apartment.

Again, there's so much more I want to write, but I'm just . . . toast. Blackened, burnt, toast. Later for you.

not your usual vacation

ConsumerMoi  Okay, my Typepad access here in China is a little wonky. My interface is a little weird and I can't see the graphics I'm posting. I also can't actually get to my own blogs to look at them, though I can post. I think. Actually, if you're reading this, please email me and let me know you can see it, and what it looks like. It's funny that I can get to Live Journal just fine, probably due to the fact that LJ is now owned by the Russians, who are friends with PRC.

HIT Research gate

Today was sort of a semi-work day, as we had a bunch of errands to do and meetings to sit through. I was up at the ungodly hour of 8:30 AM (shocking, I know, to those of you who know me) and looking over my syllabus, such as it is. I've still got some planning to do and that may take a good chunk of tomorrow. Or on the other hand, I may just wait until the work week really begins. We met with Marcy in the morning, briefly, to iron out our first day activities, then scurried off to lunch. Jan took Mike, Mary and I off to another cafeteria entirely than yesterday's, for which I was glad. It's a much nicer cafeteria in a new building with absolutely fantastic food. I think each cafeteria must be run or contracted out to different people or companies. I ordered what amounted to a mini half keg of food, which came in a small wooden bucket of rice with a choice of four, er, concoctions, for want of a better word, to put on top of it. It ends up being an amazingly savory mix of food, and comes with a thin version of egg drop soup, which is not that radioactive yellow color you see in stateside Chinese restaurants. And for all this, which has left me completely stuffed seven hours later, I paid a whopping 7 yuan—a bit over a dollar.

Food is not going to be a big expense here.

After lunch, we rushed over to meet with Wang Liang, our liaison from the Human Resources Department, and our class monitors and assistants. None of us have figured out what the difference between the two is, and "monitor" has that mildly sinister feel to it, but basically they're all there to help us out with the technology and anything else we need. We all introduced ourselves and the teachers (us) talked a little about what we're going to be doing in class. One of the monitors, Mr. Miao (not making that up), very kindly took us to have our mugshots done by an extremely professional photographer working in this backroom studio that looks like it ought to be churning out fake passports for spies. It's easily the best ID photo I've ever had taken in my entire life, except possibly for my first passport picture.

We waited outside for the photos to be ready and watched a couple of in-line skaters doing fancy footwork between tiny cones in the street while we munched on watermelon that Mr. Miao insisted on buying for us.  Have I mentioned how absolutely delightful everyone is?

The campus at HIT is a bit like the campus of NYU: very integrated into the surrounding city, yet separate from it in odd ways. All the buildings are quite open with little in the way of security beyond a receptionist and there are businesses of all kinds scattered across the campus on the ground floors. A lot of these business are set up like mini-malls or flea market stalls, under one roof or out in the open. There are a couple of grocery stores, an optical shop, several banks, bookstores, bakeries, and a coffee shop. I have yet to check out the coffee shop, but it supposedly has great shakes (and coffee) and free wifi.

We've pretty much been going everywhere in groups, but I'm planning my escape for a bit tomorrow. I've finally gotten hold of a map, thanks again to Mr. Miao, and as soon as I actually pinpoint where I am on the map, I'm outta here for some exploration. Of course, that assumes that I'll screw up my courage to actually cross the street. ;^)

Although I've seen a number of other Caucasian students, we still get a lot of curious looks from people. As Marcy and I both agreed last night, this is a good thing for white people to experience, preferably on a regular basis. It's good to see just how much you're in the minority once in a while.

I've got other thoughts, but I'm just about passing out here so I'm going to go crash for a bit. Later for you.

P.S. Pics are starting to show up on Flickr. You can see them here.

better late than never

BlueGirlofHappiness Got here, finally, after a long, long day. The initial flight went really smoothly: quick check-in with Elliott, on-time departure, uneventful flight. We were even a little early arriving in Beijing. The international arrivals terminal seemed spookily empty when we got in around five. I would have expected Beijing to be a transfer point like NYC is, but apparently not. It's a beautiful airport: modern and well-run. We got through immigration, the health check, picking up our luggage, and waltzed through customs in the nothing-to-declare lane, got checked in again for the flight the Harbin—and that's where we hit our snag. Apparently the weather was spectacularly bad in Harbin, with amazing thunderstorms and we were delayed for two hours. The Chicago contingent actually had to turn back and sit on the runway in Beijing, so they got in not much earlier than we did, which was about 12:30 PM local (It's handy that China is 12 hours ahead of us--and odd that the whole country is in one time zone.)

Haven't actually seen much of the country yet, but the folks who picked us up at the airport with Marcy have been exquisitely nice, and our rooms, though basic, are also very pleasant: kitchen, bath, living room, bedroom. AC and western plumbing with some slight differences. Didn't actually get to bed until around 3 AM, and then woke up about 8:30 this morning, eager to get going. I'm going up to Marcy's room for caffeine shortly.

Don't know if I'll have internet access, or if I'll be able to get to Typepad, and Facebook is apparently totally blocked, so I'm dropping everything into Wordpad for the moment.


Walked around campus a bit, which includes the stores stores and banks, on our way over to the dining hall. Lunch, which consisted of a huge pork and cabbage bun and a bottle of juice (fruit juice that treats tomato like a fruit—which didn't quite work for me) and bits of Marcy's eggplant with onion, and a bean sprout salad, cost about $1.50. Lots of bread in the offerings. Marcy was right. Outside, we were approached by an old man in a blue Mao suit and conical hat, flapping a clacker and begging, but most of my attention was on the people I was with. Sigh. One of the reasons I like traveling alone, though not knowing the language here would make it very difficult.

Afterwards, we trooped over to the main shopping area on campus and wandered in. It reminded me of a cross between Pearl River and Mitsuwa Market. Picked up some extremely fragrant loose black tea (wish I'd brought a strainer; didn't even think of it), packets of sugar which are apparently intended for kids but look like restaurant packets, milk-in-a-box as opposed to milk-in-a-bag, a package of moon pies, a big bottle of water, a kettle, hangars, and a powerstrip. Total: $35. Noticed the abundance of yogurt, lovely baked goods, and the usual inscrutable packages of things I've seen in the Chinese grocery store at home. I'd still like someone who could interpret to walk me through the store and tell me what everything is.

Off to dinner with some of Marcy's friends from the faculty. No internet access until, possibly, tomorrow.

Later still:

It's going to be really hard to eat Stateside Chinese food ever again.

Dinner was, in a word, marvelous. Three of HIT's faculty, Yurong and her husband Jiaqi (who is an aerospace engineer) and another faculty member who is a biochemist and whose name I didn't catch, took us to dinner at one of the other HIT campuses at what looked like another slightly more upscale dining hall at first, but which turned out to have special party rooms upstairs. The larger one was decked out for an upcoming wedding reception. Off of this was a smaller room with one large round table and a lazy susan in the middle, with three waitresses dressed in uniforms of traditional patterned black silk and white gloves. Hurong's husband ordered for us and dinner turned into a feast: crunchy greens I can't identify and some tangy dressing; crunchy fried strips of mushroom and veggies; Mongolian hotpot with lamb and veggies; half a crunchy fish with the head on (lots of crunchiness in the dinner), two really scrumptious eggplant dishes, one with potatoes; several thin pan-fried pancakes; a couple of tofu dishes; and half a pressed chicken with the skin, head and comb still on (hmmmmmm). The chicken had not only been pressed flat, but also marinated, I suspect in vinegar, to soften the bones, then cut into cross sections so you got an MRI-like view without the viscera. Not my favorite, but then, I'm not a huge fan of chicken. The dishes went round on the lazy susan and you picked bits from plates as they went by. The chopsticks were beautiful too: long and black with square gold tips on them. I'm glad I've had so much practice with sushi and Japanese food before I got here.

Even more interesting than dinner though was the walk over through the streets of Harbin. If you're interested in travel and have seen pictures of a lot of places, even somewhere you've never been looks oddly familiar the first time you see it in person. The streets around Harbin are like that. Low-rise slightly shabby buildings, densely packed, the streets full of furiously zipping cars that don't pay much attention to the traffic signs or laws, sidewalks full of vendors with fruit and veggies and charcoal boxes grilling skewers of chicken and mystery meat, paved with somewhat rocky paving stones, or just nonexistent where they cross the railroad tracks. Again, I was a bit hindered in my observation by being with a group and there were dozens of places I wanted to stop and take pictures. Crossing the street was an adventure all by itself. Parisians zipping around the Arc de Triomphe have nothing on Chinese drivers, who stop for nothing. The only strategy seems to be wait for a light, go in a group, and run like hell.

The campus we went to was at one time the zoo, and when it was taken over by HIT, they agreed with the city to open it as a park after the workday was over, so it was full of people strolling, roller blading, playing badminton (killer badminton, I might add; how do the Chinese make such sedate racket and paddle sports look so vicious?) and a version of hackysack in which the hacky sack is a flat disk-like object with feathers attached. Marcy said one of her students last year told her they'd made them with chicken feet in the country, hence the feathers. Right in the middle of the park is a huge open storm drain that Hurong said was called something that translated into "still river"--a pretty term for a prosaic piece of infrastructure. The storm drain (lined with concrete) has a couple of pretty pedestrian bridges over it, guarded by Foo dogs or lions. I still have a hard time telling them apart, but see the picture. You tell me. The park/campus has a long allee of weeping willows that is just gorgeous too.

On the way back, the park was even more full, and there was music everywhere, most of it live: a large group of people dancing to solo wooden flute and singing, lots of dancing or exercising or Tai Chi variants, couples strolling. People just organize themselves into activity groups and meet in the park. As we were walking over, we passed through a group of women gearing up for some kind of dance or exercise activity, one of whom was barking orders like a drill sergeant and giving someone a good chewing out.

Elliott and Jan had disappeared for most of the day with one of the students and Elliott missed dinner, which is a shame. We've really got to get cell phones so we can all call each other.

off like a prom dress

DreamingMoi In just about an hour and a half, I'll be off to the airport for a month-long stint in China. I packed last night, with minimal fuss, and managed to keep it to one large suitcase, a stuffed carry-on (which in retrospect I should have put a change of clothing in, or at least underwear, with my lack of luck with simultaneous luggage arrival), and my mondo-sized purse. It helps that we've got laundry facilities on the other end, so I only took about 10 days worth of clothing. I've cleaned out the fridge (mostly), emptied the trash, changed the sheets, watered the plants, painted my toenails, done the dishes (mostly) and I'm eating the last of the berries and granola right now.


And that pretty much sums it up. More when I get my internet set up on the other end.

China countdown

DreamingMoi Yesterday was the first day I didn't have somewhere to be to do something. Counting backwards: Jury duty and meet Marcia on Tuesday; jury duty and meet Helen and Maria on Monday; Sunday, take photo prints down to Helen; Saturday, have Helen over for PhotoShopping session; Friday the 3rd back to June the 26th, various stuff with Helen, the Consulate, Gruhn, Eva & Roz, Calla, out to CNR, performance for Bronx Voices. Back from the 26th to May 18th, rehearsals and errands for Bronx Voices. May 18th, final grades due. So from May 18th, I've basically not stopped.

I'm pooped.

And I'm going to China in—Eeep!—SIX DAYS! Holy shit!

Despite the looming deadline, I think I'm pretty well under control, though I still have to sit down and get my syllabus set. I've got an outline, and it's only 8 classes, so I'm not that worried about it. It's conversation mostly, for Pete's sake. And one thing I can do is talk. No wise remarks, please!

I still have to buy presents for my assistant (I'll have an assistant! Wow!), buy currency, do laundry, get my hair cut, tell the PO to hold my mail, and, of course, pack. That's the major anxiety right now: Can I get everything I want to take into two suitcases and my NYC-sized handbag? Or will I have to have a Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear suitcase and my purse? Ugh. I want to keep it to one big suitcase a smallish media carry-on, and my purse, but we'll see. I've bought a half-dozen books to use/donate to the writing center. I'm bringing a load of DVDs: CSI's first season, Babylon 5's first season, The Matrix, Minority Report, Powaqqatsi (to go with Marcy's Koyaanasqatsi), and Into the Wild. And I'm packing an extra empty cloth carry-on for on the way home.

I bought a phonetic Chinese phrase book, so maybe I'll have a chance to learn a little, though I'm sure most of the people I see will be eager to practice their English, and that's what I'm being hired for. And I've been cramming my head full of books on contemporary China. I'll post a bibliography later, when I get back, as some of them are banned in China and I don't want to alienate my hosts.

And I'm starting to really get freaked out now. I'm going halfway across the world, to a place where I'll be illiterate and won't even recognize the alphabet. I'll be with a group, so it won't be entirely isolating, which is good, even though I don't generally like traveling with groups. And yet, I feel a little like Blanche DuBois in that I have always relied on the kindness of strangers, and the universality of human nature, when I travel. Hell, I've relied on it in New York. And you know, if I hadn't lived here, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to do this. After living in New York City for 23 years, There are few places that still seem daunting: Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Antarctica (no, seriously), parts of rural South and Central America, but nowhere in the States, nowhere in Europe. Possibly Moscow. Most of Asia still seems fairly daunting. But maybe it won't after this. I hope not. If that's all I get out of this trip, which seems unlikely, it will have been SO worth it.

Stay tuned.