donkey riding
Americans' favorite passtime

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.

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